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.