What you see: A gelatin silver print of albino sword-swallower Sandra Reed (right) and her sister, Doreen, taken in 1970 by Diane Arbus. It and three other images from the same session come directly from the estate of Sandra Reed. Potter and Potter estimates each at $10,000 to $20,000.
The expert: Gabe Fajuri, president of Potter & Potter.
Do we know the story behind how Diane Arbus and Sandra Reed met? Did Reed know who Arbus was? I don’t know the story behind that, but I’m sure it’s chronicled. Obviously, Arbus had a fascination with sideshows, circuses, and unusual people. It’s a hallmark of her work. Joe, who works for me, could relate it better. Johnny Fox (a sideshow performer whose collection Potter & Potter sold in November 2018) had Arbus photos that Sandra Reed had given him. When Joe was doing the research on the photos, he found Reed’s phone number and called her. She had a vague recollection of the photo session, but it wasn’t like, “Oh, by the way, I’m the sword-swallower in the pictures by Diane Arbus”. Again, I’m speaking for Joe, but [I get the sense that it was] “Oh, I remember a lady came to the fairground and took pictures”.
Is it possible that Reed never realized the significance of having posed for Diane Arbus? The photographs in this auction were Reed’s property. She’s deceased. She died last year. The family consigned them.
Do we know how the Arbus photos came to Sandra Reed? Would Arbus have sent them to her? That’s speculation. Her kids are so far removed [from Reed’s time as a sword-swallower], they have no memory of it.
So we know these photos belonged to Sandra Reed because they come directly from her family? They’re not stamped by her, but they’re clearly from the session and they’re clearly from Reed’s collection. We also have Reed’s scrapbooks from her time on the shows [they comprise lots 236 and 237], and her traveling trunk, with her name on it. I really wanted the swords in the Arbus photos, but I can’t locate them.
Do we know how the photo session for the Arbus sword-swallower photos came about? Was it planned, or spontaneous? I don’t know, but her work is well-documented. I know that the large prints of Sandra Reed are some of her most iconic works. She took many different shots.
Many of the Arbus sword-swallower photos you’re offering include Sandra Reed’s sister, Doreen. Do we know why Doreen happened to be there? To me, that says they were both on the show. I think they were both albino.
Even though Doreen is not wearing a costume, and Sandra is? Right.
The auction includes a fifth Arbus photo, a group shot taken in 1965 at Huber’s Museum. What does it say about Arbus that she returned to these subjects so regularly? It’s clearly a big part of her life’s work. Obviously, she was interested in chronicling people who you did not see on the subway. Or if you do, you stare at them. There’s one guy in the Huber’s Museum photo who’s still alive, and performs as an Elvis impersonator and an escape artist. Mario Manzini. He’s up front, with dark hair, crouching, and in chains. If you ever need an Elvis who can escape from handcuffs, he’s your guy.
The two Arbus sword-swallower photos that you offered as one lot in the 2018 Johnny Fox sale sold for $28,800, and a record for a sideshow item at auction. Did that sale lead to the consignment of the four photos you’re offering now? One thousand percent, absolutely. It’s how Reed’s family found us.
What was your reaction to the 2018 sale? You had estimated those Arbus sword-swallower photos at $1,000 to $1,500, so I imagine it was a surprise. I thought they could get there, but the condition of the photos were less than great, and they were small. I estimated them conservatively. They had all the hallmarks of the potential to do very well–never before at auction, and the auction had a lot of buzz around it, because everybody knew Johnny.
How do these four Arbus sword-swallower photos compare to the two that set a record in 2018? These are much larger, and they have fewer condition issues. I put a higher estimate on them, but there’s no reserve. If you have $5,000, you can have a Diane Arbus photo, assuming no one else bids against them. And you can see three different versions of kind of the same photo–a distant shot, a close-up, and a medium-length shot. I can see someone wanting to buy all three for that reason.
None of the four Arbus sword-swallower photos show Sandra Reed with her sword. One of the two that sold for a record in 2018 did. Do you think that will matter? I don’t think so. Some of Arbus’s great photos of her have nothing to do with swords.
What are the Arbus sword-swallower photos like in person? Are there aspects that don’t come across on camera? You’ll never have the same feeling as holding them in person. They’re the real thing.
But these are gelatin silver prints. I’m under the impression that those types of photographs have a silkiness to them– There’s that, but it’s not about the texture, it’s about the history. It’s a physical object, touched by a great photographer and touched by and owned by the subject of the photograph. Those are the things that speak to me. They’re imposing because of the story they tell and the people who interacted with them. They don’t carry physical weight, but they carry historical weight.
How much of the $10,000 to $20,000 estimate for each Arbus sword-swallower photo comes from the fact that Sandra Reed, the person shown in all four, owned them? It might not be half, but it’s certainly 25 percent of it. If you’re a photo collector, I’m not sure if you give a shit, but I certainly would. For me, that’s fantastic. Boy, is that a selling point.
Did the 2018 Arbus sword-swallower photos go to a sideshow memorabilia collector or a collector of Diane Arbus photographs? Neither. I don’t know them to be an Arbus collector, but I know them to be an art collector.
Why will these four Arbus sword-swallower photos stick in your memory? The serendipitous nature of it, whatever word you want to use that describes happenstance–the nature of getting the consignment like this. It’s like a giant puzzle that gets unassembled and reassembled, and we end up putting it together in surprising and potentially profitable patterns.
How to bid: The four Diane Arbus photographs from Sandra Reed are lots 232 to 235 in the Potter and Potter auction; the 1965 Arbus group portrait is lot 231. All appear in the Circus, Sideshow & Oddities sale taking place on September 26, 2020.
Image is courtesy of Potter & Potter.
Gabe Fajuri has appeared on The Hot Bid many times. He’s talked about a vintage Harry Houdini postcard from the magician’s personal collection, an oversize Alexander: The Man Who Knows poster, a Daisy and Violet Hilton poster from the conjoined twins’ vaudeville years, an impressive talking skull automaton that went on to sell for $13,200, a magician automaton that appeared in the 1972 film Sleuth, a rare book from the creator of the Pepper’s Ghost illusion, a Will & Finck brass sleeve holdout–a device for cheating at cards–which sold for $9,000, a Snap Wyatt sideshow banner advertising a headless girl, a record-setting stage-worn magician’s tuxedo; a genuine 19th century gambler’s case that later sold for $6,765; a scarce 19th century poster of a tattooed man that fetched $8,610; a 1908 poster for the magician Chung Ling Soo that sold for $9,225; a Golden Girls letterman jacket that belonged to actress Rue McClanahan; and a 1912 Houdini poster that set the world record for any magic poster at auction.
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