Saturday, August 9, 2008

Dinosaur Legs

It’s hard to believe a month has passed since my last entry. Fortunately no one does anything in New York in the summertime, so there’s not much to report. No movement on the lawsuit with Bayo, and no further announcement from Phillips de Pury & Company about the mysterious white knight who was supposed to purchase the Hubert’s archive and the recently discovered Diane Arbus photos en bloc. He’s probably at the beach.

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 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?

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