Freaks & Geeks

20080228_inq_drubi28za Bob Langmuir, collector of rare books and African Americana, took a while to realize that the circus trunk he'd bought contained the greatest discovery of his career.

All he knew was that three 11-by-14-inch prints were strange:

A black man in a coat and tie, wearing a jeweled turban and tiny smirk.

A snake devouring a rat.

And, even more frightening, a tall man in sunglasses, standing on a stage, with his arms folded and tapered into sharp points where there should have been hands.

"They were clearly art shots," recalls Langmuir, 57, a white-haired, white-bearded man in owlish glasses, sitting in his workshop under a giant pastel painting of Humpty Dumpty. "I thought they were special."

Only when he brought the trove back from a Brooklyn dealer to his West Rittenhouse Street place, and spread the papers over his long desk, did he glimpse just how special.

Paging through tax documents, calendars, dream journals and correspondences to a couple named Charlie and Woogie, he came upon an entry in a 1964 address book that read:

Diane Arbus, 1311/2 Charles St., WA 4-4608.

Had he just found a mother lode of lost prints by the legendary New York photographer?

The wrong era

20080228_inq_drubi28b The paradoxical part was that Bob Langmuir really wasn't a big Diane Arbus fan. Wrong era. He was more taken with older ephemera, which is what drew him to the belongings of the African American performer and businessman who turned out to be the smirking man in the turban.

The man was Richard "Charlie" Lucas. Born in Mississippi in 1909, Lucas had been a sword-swallower, hot-coal walker, and African wild man in sideshows across the country. By midcentury, he was working in a Times Square emporium called Hubert's Dime Museum & Flea Circus as an inside talker - emcee for the assortment of human curiosities on display.

And that, it turns out, is where Lucas befriended a female photographer who was moving from shooting fashion to shooting those on society's fringes.

Langmuir had been drawn to African American culture since his boyhood, growing up in Delaware County at the edge of the black community called Morton. His first buying and selling was of jazz and blues 78s he found at People's TV, Tire & Record Store.

After leaving school, he jumped from adventure to adventure, joining the Merchant Marine, roaming around Europe and Russia, hopping freight trains, staying in missions, working as a roadie for Muddy Waters. He was scouting books and papers at auctions and junk stores when he settled down in 1978 at a Center City shop called the Book Mark. His business lasted a good 20 years.

He and his partner had wound down the business when he bought that circus trunk in 2003 that contained what he felt were rare Arbus prints.

More proof

20080228_inq_drubi28c Jeff Rosenheim, curator of photography at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was not so sure.

At first, Langmuir says, Rosenheim said the style in the photographs seemed different from what he knew of Arbus', telling the collector, "You'll have to sell me on them."

Meanwhile, Langmuir learned there was much more to the collection. He returned to Brooklyn, and the dealer - a Nigerian named Okie - handed him a second envelope of photos. Langmuir tried to stay calm. He was burning up.

He peeked inside, and saw 19 more prints, and a note, written in the same handwriting he'd found in Lucas' address books:

"Pictures enclosed for you, Suzie and Dingo. (Went to Amusements of America Carnival in Hagerstown, MD. I saw my first geek.) Diane."

That was the Eureka! moment. Before anything else could happen, Langmuir needed to show the prints to the Arbus estate for authentication. Months more passed.

Right as his professional life was at the verge of greatness, his personal life was falling apart. His mother died. He was in the midst of a bitter divorce. He was fighting depression, and losing the battle.

Still, Langmuir pursued the last pieces of the collection. He acquired more photos, from a Florida collector and from the artist Richard Merkin in New York.

Finally, word came down from lawyers representing the photographer, who had killed herself in 1971. What Langmuir had discovered: at least 30 vintage photographs from before 1963 that Arbus, herself, had printed.

On April 8, Phillips de Pury & Co. is set to auction the photographs and Charlie Lucas' archives in New York. The collection is on exhibit in Los Angeles now. Germany is next. A New York Times article priced the pieces at hundreds of thousands of dollars.

In 2004, when a fellow collector named Gregory Gibson proposed writing a book on the discovery of the photos, Langmuir said the story was about his own spiritual journey as much as anything.

Gibson spent four years researching and writing, and says he saw Langmuir, whom he'd known for 20 years, go through an epochal change. "As much as he is a genius at discovering old paper, he turned his attention inward and discovered things about himself. It was remarkable to watch the progress of that. In a way, that might have been the most satisfying part."

Gibson's book is called Hubert's Freaks, and is set to be published in mid-March by Harcourt.

Last year, Langmuir was remarried, to a teacher. He's looking forward to using proceeds from the auction to go into schools with his wife and enliven history with real artifacts from African American history.

"I'm not going to do anything differently," he said. "I've already started to do the differentlies."

Bob Langmuir has managed to put himself back together again.

Inquirer Photos by Jonathan Wilson
Ok, that was today's column. I couldn't resist posting it as a blog because I loved the pictures. But where are the Arbus shots? We don't have rights to reproduce them. But if you want to see them - in person - how about a field trip to New York?
Posted 03/06/2008 03:23:55 PM

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daniel rubin
Posted 03/07/2008 04:23:13 PM

Jimmy Hoffa's buried under the Inquirer.

rent a car
Posted 05/16/2009 06:09:43 AM

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