"We had our awe and our shame in one gulp," Diane Arbus wrote of watching the assorted freaks and sideshow performers who populated Hubert's Dime Museum and Flea Circus, a celebrated basement phantasmagoria on 42nd Street in Manhattan where she began shooting in the late 1950s as she was beginning to hone her stark signature style.
In a poignant 1966 obituary about the museum, which had mostly closed the previous year, Arbus added, "What if we couldn't always tell a trick from a miracle?"
Decades later a Philadelphia book dealer and collector of African-Americana named Bob Langmuir found himself agonizing over a similar question.
In 2003 he bought a pile of papers from a collector in Brooklyn who had come across them years earlier at an auction of possessions unclaimed from a storage warehouse in the Bronx.
The dusty, yellowed documents and pictures appear to have belonged to a onetime sideshow performer named Charlie Lucas, a black man who worked as the manager of Hubert's in its last years. Mr. Langmuir was interested mainly because he saw the artifacts as a kind of underground record of the life of an African-American businessman and entertainer.
But when sorting through the pile, Mr. Langmuir found a note in a dog-eared datebook kept by Lucas that stopped him: "Diane Arbus, 131 ½ Charles St. WA 4 — 4608." Then, he says, he looked again at some of the heavily flashed photographs of performers like Estelline Pike, a sword swallower, and DeWise Purdon, a man with no hands, and wondered: Could these possibly be early Arbus works? Or am I just dreaming?
In the world of collecting it turned out that Mr. Langmuir had come across a miracle, not a trick. Over the next several months, along a tortuous trail that led him to curators at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art, to Sotheby's and to the Arbus estate — a journey that was nearly ended by a nervous breakdown and a nasty divorce — Mr. Langmuir discovered that at least 21 photographs from the Lucas papers were rare, authentic Arbus prints.
In April, Phillips de Pury & Company plans to auction them and the other Hubert's artifacts, making it likely that Mr. Langmuir will collect hundreds of thousands of dollars. He will also be the subject of "Hubert's Freaks," a book by Gregory Gibson about the unlikely discovery, about Arbus and about her formative time spent with the denizens of the museum. The book's release is being sped up by its publisher, Harcourt, to coincide with the auction.
The discovery provides an unexpected new look at Arbus's earliest days as an artist, not long after she stopped working with her husband, Allan, in fashion photography and began to gravitate toward the unconventional subjects and approaches that would define her best-known work.
The outlandish subjects of her Hubert's years — giant cowboys, tattooed men, snake dancers and people like William Durks, a performer with a deformed face whom she called "the man from World War Zero" — directly prefigure those of her later works like nudist camp residents, transvestites, aging beauty queens and Eddie Carmel, the "Jewish Giant," an 8-foot-9-inch man whom she shot with his normal-size parents in 1970 in one of her most famous pictures.
The Arbus prints also open a subterranean window onto the profound oddity of Hubert's, a largely forgotten piece of New York history that was a kind of high-low meeting place from the 1930s until it crumbled along with Times Square. In its heyday on 42nd Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues, it was a haunt for the louche and the lurid, and also for raconteurs of the offbeat like A. J. Liebling, Tom Wolfe, Bob Dylan, Andy Kaufman and Lenny Bruce, who developed a routine about Albert Alberta, a half-man, half-woman act.
In a 1940 article in The New Yorker about Lady Olga, a renowned bearded woman, Joseph Mitchell recounted how Cole Porter sought her out in her dressing room at Hubert's to invite her to a party given at the Ritz-Carlton by Monty Woolley. (To complement her 13 ½-inch beard, she wore a rhinestone-studded gown and commented later to Mitchell: "I guess I was a curiosity to them. Some of them sure were a curiosity to me.")
Steve Turner, an art dealer in Los Angeles who is working with Mr. Langmuir and Phillips to mount an exhibition of the photographs and the other memorabilia at his gallery in February, said that Hubert's was important not only because of its location in the heart of the mostly respectable theater district but also because of its sheer tenacity. It soldiered on for years even after its minuscule chief attraction, Professor LeRoy Heckler's trained fleas, moved on when Heckler retired in 1960.
"The fact that it made it into the 1960s, when most of that kind of world had evaporated, is amazing," Mr. Turner said. He suggested that the photographs were important in the context of Arbus's career because they showed how she courted and befriended her subjects and often saw them as a kind of accidental family. (She apparently gave the prints to Mr. Lucas, who died in 1991, and may have given some to other performers as gifts in return for their willingness to pose for her.)
In many ways Mr. Langmuir, 57, is a fitting recipient for such an eccentric slice of American history. A rare-books and memorabilia dealer with a deep knowledge of old blues and folk recordings, he spent his youth rambling through Europe and Russia, serving as a merchant mariner and working briefly as a roadie for Muddy Waters. In his youth, Mr. Gibson's book says, he was also given to wearing velour capes around Philadelphia, a result of a fascination with the Pre-Raphaelites.
Mr. Turner, who has known Mr. Langmuir for many years, describes him as the kind of reclusive dealer who likes to collect things but then usually cannot bear to part with them. "He's really brilliantly instinctual, but he doesn't have the constitution for a certain kind of commerce," he said.
In a brief telephone interview about his discovery, Mr. Langmuir said he had decided to sell the Hubert's archive only reluctantly. The money is hard to pass up, of course, but he said he also felt that the history of the museum and Arbus's time there deserved to be better known.
"If it goes back into Bob's box," he said, referring to his voluminous collections. "Then the story is me repeating the same old anecdotes to myself."
"And this is a story that, the more you look into it, just keeps getting stranger and stranger," he said.
By Randy Kennedy