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.