Friday, April 10, 2009

What If?

Hardly a moment to spare for a blog entry, what with the welter of public attention surrounding the release of the new paperback edition of HUBERT’S FREAKS. My agent says Latterman and Leano are in a cat fight over who gets me. But my heart belongs to Opera. Hope you catch me on her show next Wednesday morning… Everybody’s really excited about that one! Jonathan Fransen (who happened to attend my alma mater) told me that rude really turns her on, while my fellow recovering addict Jimmy Fry admitted he wished he’d said, “It’s a book, baby. Of COURSE I made it up!” instead of trying to make nice to her.

Meanwhile, in a parallel universe, the fullness of time has revealed a couple of lovely “what ifs” in the Bob story.

The most poignant in my opinion has to do with Steve Turner’s publicity coup. Somehow, by virtue of his magnetic personality and tireless work ethic, Steve managed to snag the attention of Randy Kennedy, an arts reporter for the “New York Times.” He told Randy the incredible story of Bob’s discovery, of Bob’s long struggle to understand the Hubert’s archive and to have the Arbus photos authenticated, and of the triumphal, forthcoming auction of the Arbus/Hubert’s archive at Phillips de Pury Galleries. Damned if Kennedy didn’t run the story, complete with one of the striking Arbus photos from the archive on November 22, 2007. We were elated. Problem was, the auction wasn’t scheduled to take place until April 2008. That gave Bayo adequate time to learn of Bob’s labors and to find himself an opportunistic Court Street legal beagle. If that article hadn’t come out who’s to say how the scenario might have run? Possibly Phillips would have held their auction, the archive would have sold, and Bob would have won the day without Bayo being any the wiser.

Another thing that dawned on me recently has to do with the stunning bequest by the Arbus estate of all Arbus’s materials to the Metropolitan Museum. This took place at the end of 2007, but it was by nature a very complicated deal, and it must have been in the works for years. That means that when Bob was negotiating with Jeff Rosenheim at the Met, Rosenheim already knew that he was about to gain access to all the Arbus photographs he’d ever need. That would certainly explain his attempts to de-link the Arbus photos from the Hubert’s archive. What he wanted more than anything was the documentary record of that strange and wonderful freak show that had inspired some of Arbus’s great work. Seems to me that, had the bequest from the Arbus estate not been forthcoming, Jeff Rosenheim would have been a lot more aggressive in pursuing Bob’s goods which, by his own admission, he really liked – and the whole Arbus/Hubert’s archive might have wound up at the Met.

Oops! There’s my agent again. Gotta go…

Monday, March 30, 2009

"Strong Market Interest"

Well, it’s official. An article in April’s “Maine Antiques Digest” announced that Bob Langmuir had reached an out of court settlement with Bayo Ogunsanya over his purchase of the Arbus/Hubert’s archive. Nobody was allowed to talk specifics, but Bayo intimated there had been cash up front and the promise of a cut of future sales of the archive. In return, Bob has clear title to the material. Regarding the Arbus photographs Bayo told the MAD reporter, “Hopefully, he will be selling them for as much as he can get and soon too.”

As you may recall, Phillips was set to auction the archive last April only to cancel the sale under a cloud of mystery. This seemingly flew in the face of the contract they’d made with Bob, giving him a substantial advance, and guaranteeing him a large sum from the sale of the archive. Now Bob is free to re-examine this issue with Phillips de Pury.

But, as with everything else in this wonderful story, the Phillips situation has gotten more complicated. Joseph Kraeutler - the “photography expert” who took on the archive and who, presumably, committed Phillips to the hefty guarantee they made Bob – has left the gallery, so he won’t be around to negotiate. Charlie Scheips is still there, but after his “mystery buyer” for the archive failed to surface, he may have fewer bargaining chips. Then, last winter, Phillips de Pury was purchased by Mercury Group - a high-end retail operation selling luxury brands out of Moscow. Will Bob be negotiating with Russian tough guys who never heard of Diane Arbus?

Perhaps, but there’s more. A recent article in Conde Nast’s “” ( suggests that Phillips is on hard times. Their sale of hip-hop jewelry which – much like the Arbus sale – was postponed last fall in order to “accommodate strong market interest,” has now been cancelled indefinitely. Presumably “strong market interest” and “mystery buyer” are code words for “nobody gives a damn about our stuff.” The Portfolio article goes on to explain, “A year ago, when customers began delaying their payments to the auction house, de Pury discontinued his practice of offering guarantees. That move, in turn, reduced both the number of consigners and the quality of lots Phillips attracts. Last fall’s sales were disastrous, and close to half of the house’s lots didn’t sell.”

The settlement with Bob left Bayo gleefully anticipating his big payday when the Arbus stuff sells for millions. Now it sounds as if he might be in for a wait.

If you’d care to revisit the issues discussed above, the new paperback edition of HUBERT’S FREAKS has just been released and should be available at retail outlets everywhere. The book contains a new chapter updating the Bob saga, and a handsome new cover. Signed copies can be purchased on our website at

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Just Another Day at the Office

Well, it seems no one cared enough about Dr. Jonathan Fast or his book “Ceremonial Violence” to publish the review in which I excoriate him for sloppy research work. (Among other sins, he cited aliases in my book “Gone Boy” as if they were real characters, never having bothered to do even rudimentary primary source work.) Surprisingly, there was more interest in the idea that works like “Ceremonial Violence” are part of a burgeoning quasi-pornographic genre of “serious” books about serial killers, mass murders and school shootings. Such writings are pornographic in that they purport to educate us on issues of violence, when in fact one of their primary functions is arousal – that strange titillation we get when we are exposed to bizarre and terrifying human behavior. This may be no more than a desire to normalize the unthinkable, but if anyone doubts that it’s going viral, turn on Fox Murder-News any night, or go to Amazon Books and type in “School Shootings.” Last time I tried it 4057 hits came up.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the Freaks are stirring. A reporter for the Maine Antique Digest emailed me the news that Bayo Ogunsanya told her he expects a settlement with Bob Langmuir by February 10th. If true, that would open the way for Bob to begin negotiating with Phillips de Pury & Co. about the contract he signed with them and the mysterious cancellation of the auction in which his Arbus-Hubert’s archive was to be sold.

However, while Bob was playing liar’s poker with Bayo, big changes were taking place at Phillips. Last fall a high end Russian retail group called Mercury bought a controlling interest in Phillips de Pury & Co. Simon de Pury remained with the firm as executive chairman, but Joseph Kraeutler, one of the geniuses who engineered the deal for the Arbus-Hubert’s archive, is gone. According to Linked In, he’s now in the financial services industry. A man named Bernd Runge will be taking over artistic direction of the auction house, a move that raised a few eyebrows. According to, “Runge worked as a spy, code-named Olden, for the East German Stasi secret police from 1981 to 1989… Phillips said it was aware of Runge’s involvement with the Stasi. ‘It’s not something that clouds his achievements… or his ability to do the job here.’”

Just another day at the office in the world of high art.

Friday, December 26, 2008

"SR" Porn

We don’t make a big deal about Christmas around our house. Often, we try to go someplace far away for the holiday, but the excitement of the trip is always tinged with melancholy. December 14th is the anniversary of the 1992 school shooting at Simon’s Rock College in which Galen was murdered. I won’t speak for the rest of my family, but for me this is an occasion to ponder the astonishing nature of a universe that could take our brave, resilient, beautiful boy and leave us with Wayne Lo, his murderer, who snapped and broke all those years ago. It’s a steep meditation.

Wayne writes to me a few times a year, usually with a small check which I deposit in the Galen Gibson Scholarship Trust. He earns the money by selling his artwork, via some guy named Zack, on the internet. This made the news for a moment in the spring of 2007 when a zealous fellow down in Houston coined the term “murderabilia” and decided to crack down on its sale. Murderers, he reasoned, should not profit from their crimes. Media people contacted me about this. I opined that donating money to a scholarship fund was one of the few ways that Wayne Lo, locked in prison for the rest of his life, could try to atone for what he’d done. Society, I told them, has been very efficient about punishment, but backward about reconciliation and rehabilitation. This was not the answer they wanted to hear, so it didn’t get much play.

This past November I got a letter from Wayne that said, in part:
"There is a new book out called Ceremonial Violence: a psychological explanation of school shootings by Jonathan Fast. He devotes one chapter (chap. 2) to my crime. I had a friend send me a photocopy of that chapter alone and I discovered that Mr. Fast plagiarizes from Goneboy… He would take a sentence from one part of your book and mix it with another sentence from a different part and form a passage or paragraph… I’m just personally offended that he didn’t even attempt to interview me for the book, but that’s my narcissism speaking."

Well, that piqued my narcissism. I bought a copy of the book and read through chapter 2. I noted first and foremost that Dr. Fast had a fascination with acronyms, perhaps because he thought they made his text sound more authoritative. School shootings thus became SR (school rampage) shootings; the Children’s Gun Violence Prevention Act CGVPTA; Child Access Prevention laws CAP; even the Jefferson County Sherrif’s Office was JCSO.

Fast used several quotes from my book, Gone Boy, all properly attributed. Nonetheless, I got the feeling that he was pilfering my goods. His descriptions of people and situations sounded very like mine. The report of Wayne in prison rocking back and forth on his parents’ first visit came to me directly from Wayne’s father and was reported only in my book; Fast used it without attribution. Out of all the hundreds of pages of testimony by psychiatrists in Wayne Lo’s criminal trial, Fast repeatedly defaulted to the single characterizing sentence or phrase that I had chosen. There were half a dozen other little things, but most damningly, Fast cited and quoted from the firsthand accounts of two students, Jeremy Roberts and Rob Horowitz. Their narratives are accurate enough, but Roberts and Horowitz do not exist. I made those names up to conceal the identities behind them. Fast talked about them as if they were real people.

Perhaps Wayne Lo had a reason beyond narcissism to feel indignant. Judging by his footnotes, Jonathan Fast’s account of the Simon’s Rock case is made up almost entirely of newspaper accounts and other secondary sources. Apparently he did not take the trouble to interview any of the principals. If this was true of his work on Simon’s Rock, what did it say about the rest of his book?

There was nothing to do but read on, and I have to admit it was, in its horrible way, a compelling read. Fast recounts thirteen school shootings, with several of them described a second time in greater detail. Ironies abound. Craven school shooter Luke Woodham pleads for mercy at the end of his spree because he’d delivered a pizza the night before to the arresting officer and had discounted the price. The narratives are shot through with dramatic details. A jury’s verdict is considered during a violent thunderstorm, and then the verdict is read “by the shafts of sunlight that filtered in the courthouse windows.” We get painfully specific reports of five shootings, culminating in a nearly minute-by-minute recitation of Harris and Klebold at Columbine. As an assemblage of school shooting trivia Ceremonial Violence surpasses even the New York Times’ magisterial survey. But in the end, this ceaseless piling up of slaughtered innocents, poignant last words and hellish psychological interiors leaves the reader a little queasy.

I researched my account of the Simon’s Rock shootings from 1992 to 1999, and by the end of my work I probably knew as much as any layman about such events. I can tell you with absolute certainty that there is nothing in Dr. Jonathan Fast’s book that adds materially to what we knew about school shootings and their causes in 2000. School shooters were bullied. Many may have suffered abuse. They were unhappy kids who felt themselves to be outcasts. A not-surprising number of them wore thick glasses or dressed in black. They were all narcissists – “Drama Queens” (Dr. Fast’s term) – and they all exhibited suicidal ideation. Fast’s theory proposes a scenario in which “the candidate gets the idea of turning his suicide into a public ceremony.” He lays this theory out in three pages in his Introduction, and then we’re off to the races. Thirteen “SR” shootings later we’ve had about as much as we can handle. “I was raised in a family of storytellers,” Fast tells us (he’s the son of novelist Howard Fast). Perhaps he means it as a warning. There isn’t much here except the stories, and the stories are unrelievedly, hair-raisingly grotesque.

Back in my Navy days, when there were such things as “dirty books,” much of the smut we’d read aboard ship would be dressed up as important sociological treatises. The novel would begin with an Introduction by a Dr. Whoozits, warning us of the dangers to society inherent in lesbianism, incest, bestiality, or whatever special treat was about to be served up. Ceremonial Violence reminded me of one of those books. It is SR porn - probably a doctoral thesis that got exploited to service our seemingly bottomless fascination with such sickness. (A search for “Columbine” on yields 1547 results.)

Aside from his sloppy adaptation of secondary sources, Dr. Fast should be ashamed of allowing himself to be used in such a manner. Overlook Press should be ashamed of having used him, and we, I suppose, should be ashamed that school shooting books have to get written at all.

As Dr. Fast puts it,
"Regardless of our beliefs about the advisability of gun control laws, it is a simple fact that school shootings are impossible without guns that are affordable, available, easy to load and fire, and capable of firing many rounds within a few seconds."

In 2007, when the reporters wanted me to talk about “murderabilia,” I asked them where they were when I wanted to talk about how easy it was for crazy people to get guns in America.

They had no answer for that one.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Collector or Dealer?

An interesting entry recently posted on the Art Law Blog

notes that, “A motion to dismiss was denied last week in the case of the memorabilia collector who claims he was duped into selling a bunch of previously unknown Diane Arbus photographs for $3,500.” So it looks like Bob Langmuir and Bayo Ogunsanya will be going to court afterall.

The blog entry states, “Langmuir admitted to a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter that he knew the photographs were rare Diane Arbus prints before the second transaction with Ogunsanya. Langmuir told the reporter that at the time of the second transaction, he tried to ‘stay calm,’ but he was ‘burning up.’”

Sounds like bad news for Bob, except for one thing.

This blog entry, and nearly every other article on the affair, characterizes Bayo Ogunsanya as an innocent “collector.” In fact, as Bayo admitted to me himself, he was a dealer who for years had been buying items at storage unit auctions and selling them at flea markets, ephemera shows and on eBay. I met him as a dealer at an African American ephemera show, and when I went to his house he had a room full of material that he told me he was putting on eBay.

As anyone in the business knows, this makes all the difference. A dealer has a certain moral obligation not to take advantage of the uninformed civilians from whom he purchases his goods. But when a dealer buys from another dealer, it’s each man for himself. Every dealer has equal access to the secrets of his trade. Energy and intellectual curiosity separate those who bother to do their work from those who do not.

Bayo Ogunsanya had every chance in the world to do the research that Bob did. He’d owned the Hubert’s Archive for more than a year, and he lived within a subway ride of the some of the greatest galleries, museums and libraries in America. If he wanted to research the Hubert’s Archive, he could have. Bob Langmuir, after his first buy from Bayo, got curious and did the work. And even after his second buy, when he supposedly “knew” he was purchasing Arbus photographs, he faced still another year of painstaking research before the first few photos were authenticated by the Arbus estate.

The fact is, Bayo Ogunsanya should have done his homework. He did not, and he paid a price for his lack of curiosity. It will be interesting to see if the court, unlike the media, can grasp the elemental distinction between “collector” and “dealer.”

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Unique Platform

This from Artfino, an internet site that tracks happenings in the art world…

“Mercury Group, Russia’s largest luxury retail company, will assume control of boutique auction house Phillips de Pury & Company, according to an agreement announced today. Under the terms of the deal, Simon de Pury will remain chairman and an important stakeholder in the company.”

According to the Wall Street Journal, “Mercury owns the TSUM department store in downtown Moscow, and the Barvikha Luxury Village in a Moscow suburb. Its shops sell brands such as Gucci, Prada, Giorgio Armani and Rolex. It also has showrooms for Ferrari, Maserati and Bentley cars. In October 2007, the Luxury Village hosted the first contemporary-art exhibition in Russia by Gagosian Gallery, the art world’s global leader in exhibition space.”

In a press release announcing the acquisition, de Pury said, “we have seen tremendous growth in the company over the last four years and this partnership with a major player in the luxury sector will allow us to provide a unique platform to new and fast growing markets.”

The implications are huge for the Hubert’s Archive, currently stranded at Phillips after they cancelled their auction last spring. Once Bob Langmuir, owner of the archive, irons out his difficulties with Bayo Ogunsanya (Ogunsanya, first purchaser of the archive, is suing Langmuir in hopes of securing a chunk of the so-far non-existent profits), Bob has got to come to some new arrangement with Phillips regarding the fate of the archive and their contractual obligations to him. Will he be negotiating with Simone de Pury or some Russian bean counter who’s never heard of Diane Arbus?

It’s possible the Mercury Group’s acquisition might work in Bob’s favor. A fresh cash infusion and new ownership could be a strong incentive for Phillips to clear up old business. The archive could be put up for auction once again, or simply wind up back in Bob’s lap. And there is another possibility - one which pleases me as much as the thought of the Hubert’s Archive being placed in the Metropolitan Museum.

Perhaps Phillips was telling the truth all along, and there really was a White Knight buyer for the Hubert’s Archive. Perhaps Mercury Group was the buyer, and Charlie and Diane will wind up at the Gagosian Gallery in Luxury Village just outside of Moscow, cheek by jowl with Gucci, Prada, Giorgio Armani and Rolex. Charlie and Woogie would probably dig it, though Diane would be appalled.

Talk about a “unique platform…”

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Déjà vu All Over Again

Phillips de Pury & Co. has worked hard to cultivate its image as a younger, hipper version of Sotheby’s or Christie’s. They’re pushing the envelope, breaking new ground. Like any pioneering course of action, this one entails certain risks.

All summer they’ve been hyping their October 1st auction of hip-hop jewelry. Every week would bring a new press release telling us how cool it was that Tupak Shakur’s historic bling was coming up for sale. A part of the proceeds was even going to charity! It was as cheeky and innovative a move as attempting to auction little-known Diane Arbus sideshow photos. And as risky.

This week Phillips de Pury & Co. announced it was canceling the hip-hop jewelry auction. The reasons they gave sounded as fishy as the story of the White Knight buyer who was supposed to be buying the Arbus/Hubert’s archive.

In a September 19th article, the Village Voice sneered, “Ha ha ha ha! The long-awaited Phillips de Pury bling – ahem; ‘Hip Hop’s crown jewels’ – auction, originally scheduled for October 1, has been postponed to March of next year in order to ‘Accommodate Strong Market Interest in Works,’ which surely translates into something like ‘to accommodate strong rapper interest in keeping all the world’s gold to themselves,’ or ‘to accommodate the sudden extreme poverty of the dudes who would otherwise be ironically bidding on Diddy’s vintage Bad Boy chain.’ Presumably there aren’t a lot of hedge fund dudes looking for that ‘CRUNK AIN’T DEAD’ trophy piece for the condo they can no longer afford.”

A pattern seems to be establishing itself. Phillips tries something creative and risky. If it works they reap the publicity (as well as the profits). If it looks like it’s not going to fly they yank the sale and leave the ensuing mess to their lawyers and PR people to sort out.

Perhaps such behavior is simply an unfortunate byproduct of the auction gallery’s culture of youthful exuberance. The seemingly arbitrary cancellations make for exciting news, and Phillips has thus far managed to escape without much public relations damage. But Bob Langmuir has already felt the painful consequences of Phillips’ capricious conduct in a way that people like Biz Markie, Notorious B.I.G., or P. Diddy probably never will.