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.

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