Revisionist History: Early Auction Untangled

The upcoming Volume Two of The Visual History of Science Fiction Fandom will focus entirely on 1940. It was an intense and pivotal year for science fiction and for fandom. We currently project the book to come in at about 400 pages.

In our research, we’ve naturally focused a great deal on the 1940 Chicago World Science Fiction Convention — hereinafter “ChiCon.” (There have been other ChiCons, but this one is ours, for now.)

We’ve had the privilege of several discussions with one of the organizers of ChiCon, Erle M. Korshak. Erle served as the auctioneer at the first fifteen WorldCons. He pitched in at the 1939 New York event, took up the gavel full time in Chicago and thence became the go-to huckster. We’re delighted to have access to an iconic photo from this early period. It appeared in the 2009 volume From the Pen of Paul: Fantastic Images of Frank R. Paul, published by Erle via his company (Shasta-Phoenix Publishers) and edited by his son, Stephen D. Korshak. The photo as it appeared in that book with accompanying caption is shown below.

In this photo, Erle holds an iconic painting by Frank R. Paul titled “Glass City of Europa,” one a series of works depicting “life on other worlds.” Paul rendered these for Raymond A. Palmer, who used them on the back covers of issues of Amazing Stories and Fantastic Adventures from 1939 through 1942. Palmer and other editors routinely donated original art from their magazines to support auctions at fan conventions.

In the background behind Korshak is an even more significant artwork — Hubert Rogers’ original illustration for E.E. “Doc” Smith’s “Gray Lensman.” It appeared on the cover of the October 1939 issue of Astounding Stories, and was given to Smith by Rogers as a gift.

We intended to include a scan of the original photo in our coverage of ChiCon, along with the notable fact that the Korshak family later re-acquired the Paul painting — at a much higher price than it realized when originally auctioned.

Stephen D. Korshak with Frank R. Paul’s “Glass City of Europa,” 2008. Photo by John L. Coker III

When we dug a little deeper, we were faced with a conundrum. “Glass City of Europa” was published as the back cover of Amazing Stories in January 1942 — fully sixteen months after ChiCon. This seemed possible — perhaps Palmer had photos taken of the entire series from Paul and therefore didn’t need the originals anymore.

Far be it from us to question the origins of the auction photo, given the family’s very clear attribution to Chicago in 1940. That said, we couldn’t just leave it alone.

We’re fortunate to have other photos from the period that allow us to stitch together the record. Below we see E.E. Smith, E. Everett Evans and Erle Korshak. This photo was originally also placed at ChiCon. A third photo shows Bob Tucker and Al Ashley and was included in a batch of photos from the 1941 WorldCon in Denver — and so was assumed to be from that event.

L-R: E.E. Smith, E.E. Evans, Erle Korshak. From the collection of John L. Coker III
Wilson “Bob” Tucker and Al Ashley. From the collection of John L. Coker III

As we looked more closely, we came to the conclusion that all three of these photos must be from the same fan event. Note the exact match of the chair back style between the auction photo and the Tucker-Ashley photo. Now pick out the tie and badge worn by the person sitting behind Korshak in the auction photo. Compare that to the tie and badge worn by E.E. Evans in the group photo. Seemingly identical.

If all of these pictures are from the same event, are they from ChiCon? It didn’t add up.

  • The aforementioned time lag between ChiCon and the publication of “Glass City of Europa” — possible, but puzzling.
  • More notably, the corner of the fanzine visible on the far left of the auction photo, standing up on the table. The airbrush art is distinctive. It’s Nova (IV), v1n1 by Al Ashley, dated November-December 1941.
  • Perhaps most notably, the badge worn by E.E. Evans reads “Galactic Roamers.” We know for certain that the Roamers were formed and chose the name of the club on January 10, 1941.

At this point it became clear that the photos weren’t from ChiCon. The next logical guess was the 1941 WorldCon in Denver — but we know quite certainly that E.E. Smith wasn’t there.

Major head-scratching ensued. What hadn’t occurred to us was that there were other fan gatherings at that time where an auction might have occurred. FFE Principle Historian Sam McDonald thought of this, and thereafter quickly nailed the clear answer: all three photos are from the first-ever Michicon, held on November 16 1941.

Additional photos from that event bear this out. The chairs… the badge… the tie… Korshak clowning…

Bob Tucker’s account of the gathering tells us that “Glass City of Europa” sold for not more than $5.

Bob Tucker in Le Zombie, n44, November-December 1941

We’ll tell this story as part of Volume Three of The Visual History of Science Fiction Fandom. That book will cover 1941 in depth, including the original Boskone, the Denvention and the first Michicon. Stay tuned!

P.S. Where are the movies of the costume ball at Denvention? Where are the hundreds of photos taken at 1940 fan events? Sadly, it seems that a very small sampling of these artifacts have survived.)