Hubert's Freaks

Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>4/5

In Hubert’s Freaks, Gregory Gibson recounts the real-life business dealings of Bob Langmuir, an obsessive Philadelphia dealer of cultural ephemera. Langmuir’s story—spurred by his acquisition of freak-show photos taken by the legendary Diane Arbus—is a page-turner, charged with anecdotes about junk-shop hustlers and eccentric collectors. As it details Langmuir’s quest for legitimacy in the fine-art world, it also offers redemption in surprising places, notably abandoned storage facilities, a mental-health ward and the seedy past of Times Square.

After years of barely getting by, Langmuir, a gracious hustler, buys the prints from an unsuspecting fellow memorabilia dealer in 2003. The photos are part of a larger archive of documents and artifacts from Hubert’s, a Times Square dime museum and flea circus managed by pitchman Charlie Lucas in the 1950s. Lucas, a sideshow veteran who cut his teeth impersonating an African tribesman, proves to be the link between Arbus and her subjects—among them a three-foot-tall man, a rifleman without hands and five overweight dancers in tutus. Hoping to prove the photos’ provenance (and their rightful market value), Langmuir seeks out appraisers, museum curators and Hubert’s own performers.

Before the book is over, Langmuir acquires even more Arbus prints, but he can’t shake his outsider status. You can’t help but hope he prevails against the obstacles perpetually posed by moneyed New York art galleries, museums and the incorrigible Arbus estate. The most conspicuous gap in the narrative is that Gibson never explains how he came to write about (and, toward the end, participate in) Langmuir’s journey through the second-hand underworld. This is, however, little to detract from a well-executed story of art and how it achieves market value, one worthy of its enigmatic subjects.

—Jamie Pietras

By Gregory Gibson. Harcourt, $24.