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.