Friday, December 26, 2008
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 Amazon.com 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
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
“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
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.
Thursday, August 14, 2008
It gives some indication of his working methods, and the challenges he faced bringing order to a chaotic, but vitally important, piece of photographic history. The "Sun" reports, “It took six years, from the time the Met acquired it in 1994 until 2000, for the Evans Archive database to become accessible, and it was not until late last year that it was accessible online.”
As has been mentioned in this blog, the Arbus Estate donated Arbus’s holdings to the Met last December. Rosenheim, presumably, will be charged with organizing and cataloging the Arbus material, much as he did with Walker Evans. It may take years, but at some point – after decades of strict and restrictive control by the Estate – the Arbus archive will be available for scholarly use and occasional public exhibition. Perhaps there will be similar online access to the Arbus database at the Met.
We can only hope that by then Phillips de Pury & Company will have resolved their issues with Robert Langmuir, and that the Hubert’s archive will have found its way back to the rest of the Arbus materials. Then Jeff Rosenheim will be able to assemble that Hubert’s-Arbus exhibition he told Bob about.
I, for one, can hardly wait.
Saturday, August 9, 2008
A very cogent summary of the Phillips situation, written by Stephen Perloff, appears on Alex Novak’s "e photo newsletter."
On the movie front, Philip Seymour Hoffman has said he’s too busy with other projects to play the part of Bob Langmuir. To which Bob responded, “How can we expect Phil to want to play me when I don’t even want to?” I’m thinking Paul Giamatti, but will welcome suggestions – Anyone?? Maybe we’ll just get Bob a gig on Comedy Central.
Unlike my New York brethren I've been very busy this summer working my day job - chasing around the country looking for rare nautical books and manuscripts. And this brings me back to the subject of my last blog entry. After I published it on the hubertsfreaks.com website someone asked me, “If what you say is true, and the big auction houses have attracted all the best books and customers - how do the rest of you survive?”
The answer in my case, and for someone like Bob Langmuir as well, evokes imagery of small mammals running between the legs of lumbering dinosaurs. We’re buying and selling stuff the big auction houses can’t “see.” Obviously we can’t compete with the megafauna for Fitzgerald first editions or Cook voyages. But Fitzgerald’s Negro barber might have saved some photos of him trimming his famous client's hair, or some sailor for Captain Cook might have written his girlfriend when he landed back in England. This is the kind of material that Sotheby’s might miss, or consider not worth handling. Bob and I have made careers of discovering, evaluating and selling such minutia.
The valuable books - the items rich guys compete for at Sotheby’s and Christies – are all known. Just like the iconic photos of Diane Arbus, they all have sales records and, with the Internet, everyone has access to price information about them. For the most part, people like Bob and me search out manuscript material and ephemera – unique items, things that require a little imagination to understand and evaluate.
In fact, the best manuscript I ever dealt with had sold at Sotheby’s 20 years before for a few thousand dollars. The cataloger hadn’t read it closely and didn’t understand that it contained a hitherto unknown report of an important Pacific voyage. We bought it from a descendant of the purchaser, and read it carefully the second time. It sold for six figures.
Similarly, the man who first bought the Hubert’s archive didn’t know what he had. Bob Langmuir, to his eternal credit, figured it out. Thanks to him the archive has been identified and its cultural importance established. For his efforts he’s being sued by an opportunistic mammal and is in danger of being stepped on by one of the lesser dinosaurs. He says he’s been spending a lot of time in Mexico. Who can blame him?
Tuesday, July 8, 2008
Part of this mirrors an economy in which the divide between the haves and have-nots grows greater every year. But a great deal of it is caused by a radical change in the circumstances under which high art objects are bought and sold. There have always been dealers and connoisseurs who evaluate material and move it into the hands of collectors. What’s really changed over the past 20 years is that auction houses have become increasingly dominant, in many instances displacing private dealers, galleries, and other specialists.
This has happened on macro and micro levels. Little dealers, like Bob Langmuir, used to get house calls. Now that material gets put on eBay or goes to local auctions. At the other end of the scale auction houses like Christies and Sotheby’s have become international giants.
These big auction houses have been brilliant at marketing themselves as honest brokers. When a dealer or middleman is involved, any amount of manipulation is possible. An auction situation, ideally, is transparent. Consumers compete in a public venue for the goods. The idea has enormous rational appeal – at least in theory - and the major auction houses, as well as eBay, have promoted it to the hilt
In practice, however, auctions are subject to all sorts of manipulation. For one thing, connoisseurship has been replaced by salesmanship. Those luscious auction catalog entries are designed to make you want to pay as much as possible, not to inform you honestly about the goods. At the end of the day, nothing is guaranteed. It is always “buyer beware.”
Secondly, the success of these giants has skewed what used to be called “Fair Market Value.” The example cited in my last blog entry is classic. Something a dealer might sell for $20,000 sells for $80,000 or more, simply because of WHERE it was sold. An item is likely to bring a higher price at Christies than at Swann’s, hence Christies will attract better goods. The few big auction companies that have established dominance now can be sure to attract only the best material, which will bring ever-greater prices. This has always gone on, but now more than ever before, venue influences value.
This dominance has had another side-effect. Over the past decade, auctioneers have begun raising their “buyer’s premium” - the amount they charge the buyer on top of the selling, or “hammer” price. From 10% it went to 15%, to 20%, and then, shockingly, to 25%. See “Sotheby's profit up 46 pct on auction commissions” at http://www.reuters.com/article/companyNews/idUSWNAS247120080226
The implicit message is that these companies and their stockholders are no longer interested in working with the common round of dealers, collectors and institutions. They are interested only in the very top of the market – those people to whom money is not an issue. It’s a tough, and if you’re not enormously wealthy, a rather nasty business.
And perhaps these were the market forces that persuaded Phillips to cancel the auction of the Diane Arbus photos that Bob Langmuir had discovered. I’m sure Phillips de Pury seemed big enough and bad enough when they pulled the rug out from under Bob last April 8th. But it could be that they were, in reality, caught between two bigger and badder entities – Christies and Sotheby’s.
Wednesday, June 25, 2008
The article was brought to my attention by a colleague, who also told me that a copy of Benjamin Franklin’s “Maritime Observations” was coming up for auction at Christies. This is an important item in the history of science and, because of its maritime component, he wanted to let me know about the sale. Essentially Franklin’s treatise documents his discovery, in 1785, of what we now know as the Gulf Stream. The pamphlet was estimated to sell at $15,000-25,000. I guessed it would sell at around $35,000. In fact, it went for $80,500 with the auctioneer’s 20% premium.
Tracking the blatant “rich getting richer” course of the Bush economy, the escalation of high-end material has taken over every area of the high art world, including rare books. The rarest of the rare sells for increasingly grand sums. Everything else founders or sinks. Perhaps the strongest example of this at the Christies sale was tragic genius Alan Turing’s 1936 paper “On Computable Numbers.” This early and important item had a well-established value of about $20,000. However, the copy at this Christies sale brought $182,500, including the premium.
This highlights another aspect of today’s weird market. More than ever before, the sales venue has a significant impact on the selling price of an item. Turing’s paper might sell for $20,000 at Bloomsbury or Swann, and $180,000 at Christies. So what is it really “worth?” Has value become a function of venue?
Inevitably all this takes me back to the cancelled Phillips sale last April 8th. It’s getting on three months and the mystery buyer announced by Phillips has yet to emerge. I can’t help but wonder if the people at Phillips misjudged the current market, only to realize their mistake at the last moment. Auction results over the past decade have demonstrated that, for all of Arbus’s work, it is only the icons that bring strong sales numbers. Results over the past few years make it clear that Christies and Sothebys are where the real money gets made. Did Phillips think they could buck this trend with Bob Langmuir’s collection of funky, fascinating, but off-brand Arbus material?
In HUBERT’S FREAKS Steve Turner counsels Bob Langmuir not to over-pitch his goods, to let the buyer “sell it to himself.” At this remove it looks more and more as if Steve Turner took his own advice when he was trying to find a taker for the Hubert’s archive. Charlie Scheips and Joseph Kraeutler, the photography experts at Phillips, sold it to themselves.
Saturday, June 7, 2008
My Big Box bookstore readings typically draw crowds of three or four people, two of whom are derelicts temporarily dwelling in the store’s spacious aisles. So I was surprised to see that there were a couple of dozen attendees at Out of the Blue, and even more surprised to learn that each of them had shelled out $4 for the privilege of hearing us read.
Emcee Gager warmed the crowd up by reading a few of his funny, gritty, slice-of-life poems, alternating with his own brand of good improv comedy, playing off the audience, getting them relaxed, making them feel involved. They were already getting their money’s worth.
He was followed by a poet named David Lawton, who did something that I found remarkable. Rather than read his poetry, he ranted it, rapped it, declaimed it, crooned it – all off the top of his head, without ever once sticking his nose in a manuscript. The poems were strong and smart, but what really impressed me was Lawton’s performance – in the old bardic tradition - bringing us news from faraway places sung by a minstrel in cargo pants.
Next I did my bit out of HUBERT’S FREAKS which, since I was probably twice the age of anyone else in the room, at least proved that people had been trying to write things since before they’d been born.
Last up was novelist Mike Heppner who read a bit from a work in progress about going to a reading with a girl who kind of annoyed him. The guy giving the reading in the piece was a burned-out case and Heppner got into a very funny riff imagining this guy's life, which started reminding me of my own, especially the part about his poor weary liver feeling like a pulled muscle.
The whole reading had a young, funky energy to it that put me in mind of Freebird Books in Brooklyn, where I’d read a couple of months before. Same age-group, same sense of humor, same confusions, same freshness. Then, with the synchronicity that sometimes accompanies such events, I got an email from Freebird this morning. They’d just discovered an artifact from the old Hubert’s Dime Museum, and Charles Hutchinson, one of the proprietors, had written an eloquent essay about Hubert’s, with a link to the YouTube video of our old pal Jack Dracula talking about Diane Arbus. (Check it out at http://www.freebirdbooks.com/ )
Everybody in my business talks about how the publishing industry is a sinking ship, how retail bookstores are a thing of the past, how books themselves will soon be replaced by Kindle and its spawn. But a couple of nights at places like Freebird and Out of the Blue are enough to give me hope.
This stuff won’t go away. It’s too much fun.
Monday, June 2, 2008
All this computer aided time-travel put me in mind of things webbish, and of Google in particular. (It has long been a fantasy of mine to write a crime novel in which one tough-guy character asks, “Who the hell are you?” and the other replies, “Google me, asshole.”) Long ago, in accordance with advice I gleaned from some “How to Publicize Your Book on the Internet” book, I set up a daily Google search for “Hubert’s Freaks,” “Diane Arbus,” and “Gregory Gibson.” Now, whenever a new review or news item comes out on the internet, Google finds it and sends it to me. Thanks to blessings of Google, I feel right on top of things.
But blessings sometimes come with curses. In this case, it’s my alter-ego, Gregory Gibson. Seems the “other” Gregory is a truck driver in Virginia. Last summer he sped through a red light and hit another car, killing a teenaged girl. He was headed for prison but the girl’s family asked that he be shown mercy. The judge, impressed, sentenced him to home incarceration and community service. Gregory wept and begged forgiveness. The newspapers, impressed, picked the story up, and now Google delivers it to my electronic doorstep, in its every iteration.
It’s a moving drama of redemption and forgiveness. I certainly wish the best for the girl’s family and for the truck driver. But, dammit, I do NOT relish waking up every morning to news of my criminal trial, to recounting my act of heedlessness that resulted in the death of another, to the recitation of the pain I caused that family, or even their high-minded mercy. Not to mention my wretched attempts to let them know how sorry I am for what I’ve done.
In some mystical way that relentless, blind Google spider has “called my name” and every morning I am dragged by proxy into a bit of the hell that these people are trying to live through.
I intend to be more careful with miracles in the future.
Wednesday, May 21, 2008
Well, it looks as if Bayo Ogunsanya’s suit against Bob Langmuir will have its day in court. That is, the presiding judge in Brooklyn has not thrown it out. But when the busy New York Eastern District Court actually gets around to hearing it is anyone’s guess.
Meanwhile, Phillips de Pury has purged all traces of the scuttled auction of Bob Langmuir’s Arbus/Hubert’s archive from its website. And the auction catalog, a lovely document, is no longer available for sale. Either canny speculators snapped up the remaining copies, or Phillips is holding onto them, knowing they have an instant collector’s item.
A journalist friend, researching a piece for the Village Voice, interviewed Jeff Rosenheim of the Metropolitan Museum, and spokespeople for the Arbus estate and the Fraenkel Gallery. When asked about their possible involvement in Phillips’ last minute cancellation of the April 8 auction, they all said NO WAY. Phillips, true to form, had no comment.
So maybe all my conspiracy theories about the Arbus archive are wrong. Maybe the Arbus estate and the Metropolitan Museum could care less about what happens to the photos that Diane Arbus took of performers at Hubert’s Dime Museum, or the dream journals of Charlie Lucas, the African American performer who managed that venerable Times Square institution.
Maybe Phillips de Pury is just waiting for everyone to forget about the whole strange affair. Maybe they’re banking on the fact that the Bayo lawsuit will exhaust Bob’s resources and that they’ll then be able to strike a more favorable deal with Bob than their original guarantee promised. (They estimated the Arbus/Hubert’s archive would sell for a minimum of $1.75 million. So far, they’re $1.75 million shy of that number.) And then, if they ever settle with Bob, who’s to say they won’t just put the archive away to ripen? Or, worse, disperse it quietly, in dribs and drabs.
This is precisely what Bayo would have done if left to his own devices. He’d have sold the photos and documents on eBay and at various paper shows, piece by piece, thereby destroying the integrity of this unique collection, and the scholarly uses that might have been made of it.
Bob rescued the archive, and made the public aware of its importance. Now he faces a court date, a nasty battle with a well-funded auction gallery, and the disturbing possibility that all his labors might have been in vain.
Monday, May 12, 2008
The image is of a flat stone skipping across the water. Each skip gets a little shorter as the stone loses energy. Then a brief last slide, and the stone disappears.
Unless you’re Malcolm Gladwell or Stephen King, or the author of a top ten bestseller (the odds on this are about like a ghetto kid making it to the NBA), that’s the way it is when you publish a book. A couple of months of interviews, signings and reviews, and then the world moves on in its ceaseless quest for the New. Your beautiful book sinks like a stone. Or at least it feels that way – Goodbye book! Nobody loves you anymore! When my first book, GONE BOY, came out, I didn’t understand what was happening. At this point in the process for the second book, DEMON OF THE WATERS, I understood all to well, and became depressed. This time I’m philosophical.
HUBERT’S FREAKS hit bookstore shelves mid-March, and now I can feel the attention beginning to wane. But instead of considering suicide or drinking myself into months of oblivion, I’ve come to realize this is when the real work begins. My baby is out there on its own now, but there might be things I can do to help it.
So I’m writing a lot of emails. I’m trying to be helpful to movie people. I’m feeding journalists who are interested in following the story of the art world shenanigans that have fouled things up for the book’s protagonist, Bob Langmuir. I’m visiting bookstores and I’m reaching out to niche markets, just like it says to do in all the books that tell you how to publicize your own bestseller. I’m loading the website with HTML content and soon I’ll get it all tricksy with Java and Flash, so that when – IF – the paperback comes out interested browsers will have a sticky destination with click-throughs to Amazon, B&N, and me.
I’m starting to feel a bit like Charlie Lucas on the Grind Tape he made in 1965, trying to lure customers to the ticket booth at the back of Playland on 42nd St.
“Come back here, in the rear, where the show is going on right now. Hurry along, hurry along, hurry along. Come on in. You are just in time. It is show time. It is show time in Hubert’s Museum. A real live show… There is no waiting. There is no delay. Oh yes. This is a continued show… This show is for ladies, gentlemen and children… We have six live acts. They are alive, living, breathing as you or I. Hurry along. This show is for ladies and gentlemen, children. Hurry along, come on in…”
Maybe nobody buys the pitch. Maybe tens of thousands of people walk past that fantastic doorway - where Joe Buck stood, trying to work his innocent hustle in “Midnight Cowboy” - oblivious of the wonders within. But it beats getting depressed. And it gives me something to do while I’m stewing over the proposal for the next book. You’d think I’d learn.
Hurry along, hurry along. This is a continued show...
Friday, May 2, 2008
In my book HUBERT’S FREAKS Bob Langmuir has an important meeting with Jeff Rosenheim, curator of photography at New York’s Metropolitan Museum. Jeff clears up some preliminary misunderstandings on Bob’s part by telling him, “We’ve already done an Arbus show. I want to do a Hubert’s show.”
It’s a critical moment in the story, as Bob comes to understand another aspect of the archive he’s discovered. But it also speaks well for Rosenheim’s curatorial insight and intelligence. The strange subculture of freak shows and sideshows, and how Diane Arbus interacted with it, would indeed make for a fascinating exhibition.
Now, whether by means I’ve speculated about in earlier blog entries, or through some yet-to-be-discovered scenario, it seems at least possible that Bob Langmuir’s Arbus/Hubert’s archive might wind up with the rest of the Arbus Estate’s holdings – in the care of the Metropolitan Museum. Such an outcome would probably be satisfactory to the Estate, who would once again have control over the rogue archive thrown before the public by the intractable Langmuir. But it might also result in the Hubert’s exhibition Jeff Rosenheim has been longing to assemble at the Met, which would be a terrific thing.
Such were my thoughts as I finished a long phone conversation yesterday with a man named Preston Mardenborough. Preston had run away from home and, at the age of sixteen, wound up spending a lot of time at Hubert’s, eventually finding part-time employment there. He remembered Charlie Lucas, Woogie, Sealo the Seal Boy, Congo the Jungle Creep and Andy Potato Chips - all subjects of Arbus’s photographs - and he asked after them as eagerly as someone at a high school reunion might ask after absent friends.
Preston is just one of a number of surviving Hubert’s alums. Jack Dracula, Presto the Magician, Richard del Borgo, Ward Hall, and Bobby Reynolds are still with us, and who knows how many others might be out there somewhere – alive, kicking, and full of stories about Hubert’s and maybe even about Arbus?
I hope Jeff Rosenheim gets to do his Hubert’s show at the Met, and I hope all the old freaks go to see it. Wouldn’t that be a lovely scene – giants, midgets, tattooed men and bearded ladies trooping through those hallowed halls? Can senior citizens still eat fire? Swallow swords? What happens to tattoos after 50 years? Does anyone still remember how to train fleas?
It would make a great panel discussion on the night of the opening. Surely the Met would give it a dignified, academic-sounding title. And they’d have to get phone books for the midgets to sit on, low chairs for the giants, and translators for the wildmen and geeks, but it would be a splendid event, well worth the extra effort.
Give me a call anytime, Jeff. I've got their contact info.
Thursday, April 24, 2008
49 Geary St. in San Francisco is a big chunk of a building refurbished into a warren of medium and high-end galleries. The exclusive Fraenkel Gallery has been a tenant there for twenty years. They are one of America’s foremost dealers in contemporary photography and, incidentally, among the select few dealers representing the Arbus estate.
Speculation at 49 Geary St. is that Fraenkel was in some way involved in the mysterious cancellation of the auction (at Phillips de Pury last April 8th) of Times Square freak show photos by Diane Arbus. “Sounds far-fetched to me,” my informant reports, “but the whole thing is way out of my league…”
Far-fetched, all right. But go back to December 2007, and the stunning Christmas Day press release by the Metropolitan Museum:
“The Metropolitan Museum of Art announced today that it has acquired the complete archive of Diane Arbus ... The Estate of Diane Arbus has selected the Museum to be the permanent repository of the artist’s negatives, papers, correspondence, and library. The Museum will collaborate with the Estate to preserve Arbus’s legacy and to ensure that her work will continue to be seen in the context of responsible scholarship and in a manner that honors the subjects of the photographs and the intentions of the artist.”
(I take that last sentence to be code for “No outsiders. And no more hare-brained discoveries and books like those by Langmuir & Gibson.” Here’s what Joseph Kraeutler of Phillips de Pury said about HUBERT’S FREAKS – “I was disappointed to see that Arbus was treated more as a crazy person rather than the brilliant artist that she was and I found it tasteless the amount of detail which was included regarding Bob’s interactions with various institutions and my colleagues” – Sounds to me like he’d read another book than the one I had written, but the tenor of his statement certainly jibes with the Met’s promise to ensure “reasonable scholarship and a manner that honors… etc.”)
In its Christmas press release the Met also announced that it had simultaneously acquired 20 iconic vintage Arbus prints. Here’s the NY Times article on that acquisition:
“At the same time, the museum has bought 20 of Arbus’s most important photographs… from the Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco, which represents her estate. While the Met declined to say what it paid for the photographs, experts say they are worth at least $5 million.”
Flash forward to the critical week of April 6-12. Bob Langmuir, the discoverer of the Arbus trove, is being sued by Bayo Ogunsanyo, the dealer from whom he purchased the archive. But that’s not the worst of it from Phillips’ point of view. Everyone knows it’s the Arbus icons that bring the big dollars. Phillips de Pury is running a risky strategy trying to peddle off-brand Arbus material. Who knows what level of pre-sale interest they were able to generate?
Then, the night before their sale, an Arbus icon - "Box of Ten Photographs" - sells at Sotheby’s for a record breaking $553,000, sucking most of the oxygen out of the room for Phillips’ goods. The buyer? - Jeffrey Fraenkel! To make matters worse there’s a huge sale of Arbus icons coming up at Christies in a couple of days. Phillips cancels their auction the day of the sale, announcing they have a potential buyer for the entire archive. As of this writing they still have not revealed his identity.
But all the sudden, the 49 Geary St. rumor doesn’t sound that far-fetched at all. Once Langmuir gets the Bayo Ogunsanyo mess straightened out, maybe Phillips restructures their deal with him. (Don’t forget, by virtue of their contract with Bob, Phillips more or less “owns” the photos). Then they might get rid of the archive just as they’d said - by private treaty to a white knight buyer. And if Jeffrey Fraenkel is the white knight maybe the whole screwy Hubert’s/Arbus archive gets buried in the Metropolitan Museum with the rest of the Arbus material, where it will be studied only “in the context of reasonable scholarship.”
Next week - Who REALLY Killed the Kennedys.
Friday, April 18, 2008
I was scheduled to do a reading and signing of HUBERT’S FREAKS at the Harvard Coop in Cambridge, but when I saw that they’d failed to secure a listing for the event in the “Boston Sunday Globe,” I knew I was in trouble. Worse still, there was a listing for Richard Price reading from his hot new novel LUSH LIFE at the Harvard Book Store on the same night.
Sure enough, the only person in attendance at the Harvard Coop was a Nigerian man named Sunny. He was a writer, too. He had written dozens of books – fiction, poetry, non-fiction, self help. He was certain that if he just had the proper exposure, his books would be widely read. He wanted to know how to get an agent, and if I would show his work to my agent. It turned out he spent a lot of time at the Harvard Coop. After a while we were joined by another, very slender, gentleman who spent even more time at the Coop. He liked to research books there, which he would then withdraw from the nearby public library, where he also spent a lot of time. But, we soon discovered, if he wanted to research my book, he would not find it in New Arrivals or Non-Fiction at the Harvard Coop. According to the computer at one of the desks, the store’s lone copy of HUBERT’S FREAKS was shelved under “Cultural Anthropology.”
After about fifteen minutes the slender man went off somewhere to munch more books. I set to work signing the stacks of soon-to-be-returned copies of my book that the Coop had set out for decoration. That way, I figured, they could not be sent back to the distributor. “Cultural Anthropology” would be bulging with them. Then two ladies entered the reading and signing area. They had just come from the Harvard Book Store, and they said Richard Price was still reading. I suggested we go over and check him out. The ladies demurred, but Sunny and I took off, excited at the prospect of hearing a famous writer talk.
By the time we got there, Price had stopped reading and was answering questions to an overflow crowd of men and women, mostly in their twenties and thirties. He had a jittery, nervy affect that came across as vulnerability rather than attitude. He talked about “The Wire” for which he’d written episodes, and about his other novels, and about this one, which took place in the Lower East Side, and how he did his research by “hanging out.” He talked about how dense and varied the Lower East Side was, and how much fun hanging out had been. It was helpful, he said, to have a crime to build a novel around, because getting started – getting that first sentence down – was very hard. Writing was very hard. He could never remember how he’d done it in the past. But once he got going insights occurred, things happened to characters that he never could have planned or plotted. You could do all the research in the world, all the hanging out you wanted, but it wasn’t writing. Only writing was writing. And writing was hard. It was a rare, special kind of effort.
Richard Price hung in there for a good half-hour, talking in this way about writing, his claw of a right hand clutching the podium, as if to keep him from blowing away in the gale of fascinated questions. His answers were invariably intense and humorous in a New York ironic way, and really smart.
Then I understood why everybody wants to be a writer. It wasn’t just about being rich and adored. People see a guy like this, all ravaged and funny and wise, and they get a sense of how difficult and dangerous it must be, and how wonderful it must feel to be in that moment when characters have lives of their own. I glanced over at Sunny and he was right in there with me, ready to start another book.
He said, “You will tell your agent, won’t you?”
“Yes,” I replied. “But I was only kidding about Oprah. I don’t really party with her. I don’t know her at all.”
Sunny smiled, courageous and undeterred. As Richard Price was, gamely forging ahead up there. As, just for a moment, I was, too.
Monday, April 14, 2008
Bob Langmuir, the protagonist of HUBERT’S FREAKS was planning a lengthy vacation trip to Mexico. Phillips de Pury Galleries in New York was set to auction the archive of Diane Arbus photos that he discovered, and estimates for the entire sale ran upwards of $1.7 million. He went to bed Monday night expecting to be a millionaire. He woke up Tuesday to discover the auction had been called off. Phillips hinted at a mysterious buyer, but none has come forth as yet, and no further explanation has been given.
Naturally, I’ve been following the debacle. Not having access to any insider at Phillips de Pury, or to Bob’s lawyers, my information has come from the newspapers and from the blogosphere. And I’ve noticed something very interesting about the way this story has been transmitted.
Presumably Phillips’s problems started early in March, when Bayo Ogunsanyo brought a lawsuit against Bob. Bayo was the guy from whom Bob purchased the archive. At the time, neither of them knew this was a property that might be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars or more, but Bayo later claimed he was an innocent “collector” who had been “victimized” by Bob.
In fact, Bayo Ogunsanyo is a well-known dealer in African Americana, not an innocent collector. The distinction is an important one.
Bayo had owned the Hubert’s archive for more than a year before Bob bought it. Both Bayo and Bob had equal access to all the information about Hubert’s Dime Museum, and about Diane Arbus. They haggled over the goods and arrived at a mutually agreeable price.
But, unlike Bayo, Bob then undertook the work of research and discovery – a lengthy and difficult process – before the photos were finally authenticated as vintage Diane Arbus prints. Bayo could have done this, but he did not. Once Bob had done the work, Bayo wanted to cash in.
Hence, Bob’s lawyers characterize Bayo’s lawsuit as “frivolous” – nothing more than a complaint made by another dealer who got “seller’s remorse.”
But the newspapers and art blogs seem to prefer the dramatic version. In the original reporting of the lawsuit on March 7th and 8th, the Daily News, the New York Post and Newsday all referred to Bayo as a wronged “collector.” On March 9th a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer got it right, referring to Bayo as a “dealer.” But nobody followed his lead. Since then every news and blog story tells the “victimized” version. It’s sexier that way. Here’s a typical report on a blog called “Suite 101”:
“A New York collector unknowingly sold photographs by Diane Arbus to a businessman who is attempting to auction them next month.”
If you’re in the ephemera world, go to the big Allentown Paper Show later this month and ask around about Bayo. I’d be surprised if “collector” or “victim” is how his colleagues would describe him.
Friday, April 11, 2008
I just published a book called HUBERT’S FREAKS. It’s about a guy who discovers a trove of unknown vintage prints by the American master Diane Arbus. The photos were taken in the 1960s at a freak show in Times Square. They document life in that strange place and they show the level at which Arbus engaged her subjects. Some of them are quite good, and probably worth a great deal of money. The archive was to be auctioned off at Phillips de Pury Gallery on April 8th.
My wife and I were driving into New York, where I was scheduled for readings at Freebird Books in Brooklyn, and at the Strand Bookstore. We stopped the night before in a little motel just outside the city. The place was cheap, but clean in a Lysol sort of way. The walls were decorated with two paintings. They were both the same – identical reproductions of a cheesy still life. I had occasion to think about them over the next few days.
The reading at Freebird went well. There was an overflow crowd, probably because the owners had set up a Times Square style peep show at the rear of the store. The reading at the Strand, also a full house, was a more eventful. Two clowns tried to hijack the event, each claiming he was the true discoverer of the archive (and hence entitled to the proceeds of the auction.) A third gentleman with a booming voice insisted that some of the millions from the forthcoming Phillips sale should be diverted to a retired freak show performer called Presto the Magician, who was now in a bad way. Presumably the fellow making the pitch was managing Presto’s financial affairs.
The next morning I learned that Phillips de Pury had cancelled their auction of the Arbus archive. Overnight and without warning.
I called the gallery and was told by a pleasant young lady that Phillips had an opportunity to sell the archive as a single lot, and that they thought it better that the archive be kept intact. I asked her why, if that were the case, the photos had been initially offered as individual lots. She referred me to another lady who told me she was sorry she could not answer that question.
But I could. At least in my imagination.
The planned sale at Phillips was boxed in by two sales at which iconic Arbus images played a strong part. At Sotheby’s an image of that strange couple on their lawn chairs in Westchester had already brought $550,000 and the Quillan collection being offered at Christie’s was going to feature more classic Arbus images. No one seemed to mind that many of these were not vintage prints (the majority of them were printed in limited editions by Neil Selkirk) or that they were copies of the same few Arbus images that had hit the market dozens of times in the past few years. A limited edition copy of Arbus’s “Box of 10 Photographs” – containing what amounted to her Greatest Hits – had sold recently for over half a million dollars.
It didn’t matter that they were the same old images, cranked out over and over – any more than it mattered to the decorator who had adorned our room with identical still lifes. In the course of researching my book I’d been told repeatedly by experts that the real market for Arbus photos was the known images, the ones people were comfortable with. For some counter-intuitive but emotionally spot-on reason, the more familiar an image is, the easier it is for people to spend wild sums obtaining it. They just have to be assured that it was produced in a “limited edition.”
It’s crazy, but I believe that’s where Phillips got caught. They were sandwiched between two strong auctions of classic Arbus images. It was a thin market anyway, and it’s possible that their rogue Arbus images attracted little or no pre-sale interest. On top of that, one of the claimants for priority of discovery was pressing suit on the true discoverer of the archive.
The language in the lovely catalog that Phillips prepared for the sale indicates that they own the archive – either because of their presale guarantee or some other contractual arrangement. They couldn’t risk putting the prints up for sale and having them not meet their low estimates, so they pulled out.
It’s going to be interesting to see where this archive winds up. Maybe in the rest home with Presto. As of an April 9 NYT article, Phillips had changed their story from “private buyer” to “no comment.” The other two challengers for priority of the discovery were nowhere to be seen.
They killed the auction. Now they have to dispose of the body.