Money changes things. Once an object has value, there are stakes for its makers, stakes for its buyers, and inevitably, stakes for anyone caught between the two. This is doubly true when the object is art, and its worth is largely predicated on the perception of value. A napkin with a couple of squiggly lines can be transformed overnight from garbage to a work of genius if it's attributed to Picasso or Dali; that genius gets translated into a higher sale price at auction. The trick for the seller is to find something whose real worth hasn't been discovered yet, recognize its potential association with greatness, and squeeze that greatness for every penny it's worth.
Author and antiquarian book-dealer Gregory Gibson follows the adventures of one lucky seeker in his new non-fiction book, Hubert's Freaks: The Rare-Book Dealer, The Times Square Talker, And The Lost Photos Of Diane Arbus. Bob Langmuir has had his share of hard times; with two bad marriages and a laundry list of insecurities, he's the sort of guy who could use a break about as much as he knows he'll never get one. In his searches as a collector of African-American art, Langmuir discovers a group of notebooks and old photos from Hubert's, a Times Square freak show. The notebooks are by Charlie Lucas, Hubert's former manager and pitchman, and through them, Langmuir learns the photographs' potential value; Diane Arbus was a frequent visitor to the show, and some of the pictures bear a strong resemblance to her later, more iconic work.
Gibson divides Hubert's Freaks between a history of Hubert's, an abbreviated biography of Diane Arbus, stories from Langmuir's life, and the tale of his struggles to get the photos authenticated. It's briskly paced, and Gibson does a good job connecting the disparate threads, but it's also sometimes overly glib, as though Gibson researched his material by reading Wikipedia entries instead of going to the source. Hubert's is always entertaining, but it lacks impact, which keeps it from lingering very long after the final page. Still, Gibson's empathy for Langmuir and his efforts make for a solid through-line, and a modestly moving one. There's something refreshing about a treasure hunt where finding the treasure isn't nearly as important as being sane enough to keep it.