Alleged Adams negatives, bought at garage sale, in dispute

Rick Norsigian avows this photo was made from an Adams negative.
Rick Norsigian avows this photo was made from an Adams negative. (Nick Ut/associated Press)

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By christina hoag
Wednesday, July 28, 2010

BEVERLY HILLS, CALIF. -- A trove of old glass negatives bought at a garage sale for $45 has been authenticated as the lost work of Ansel Adams and worth at least $200 million, an attorney for the owner said Tuesday, but the iconic photographer's representatives dismissed the claim as a fraud and said they're worthless.

Arnold Peter, who represents Fresno painter and construction worker Rick Norsigian, said a team of experts who studied the 65 negatives over the past six months concluded "beyond a reasonable doubt" that the photos were Adams's early work, believed to have been destroyed in a 1937 fire at his Yosemite National Park studio.

Adams is renowned for his timeless black-and-white photographs of the American West, which were produced with darkroom techniques that heightened shadows and contrasts to create mood-filled landscape portraits. He died in 1984, at age 82.

His photographs today are widely reproduced on calendars, on posters and in coffee-table books, while his prints are coveted by collectors. His print "Clearing Winter Storm, Yosemite National Park" fetched $722,500 at auction last month in New York, a record for 20th-century photography.

Norsigian, who works for the Fresno Unified School District, has set up a Web site to sell prints made from 17 negatives from $45 for a poster to $7,500 for a darkroom print with a certificate of authenticity. A documentary on his quest to have the negatives authenticated is in the works, as well as a touring exhibition that will debut at Fresno State University in October.

Representatives of Adams, however, said they're not buying Norsigian's claims.

"It's an unfortunate fraud," said Bill Turnage, managing director of the Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust. "It's very distressing." Turnage said he's consulting lawyers about possibly suing Norsigian for using a copyrighted name for commercial purposes.

He described Norsigian as on an "obsessive quest." "We've been dealing with him for a decade," he said. "I can't tell you how many times he's called me."

Adams's grandson, Matthew Adams, who heads the Ansel Adams Gallery in San Francisco, said he reviewed Norsigian's authentications last fall and thinks they're stretches. Many photographers took pictures of the same places Adams did in that era, he said.

Norsigian bought the negatives from a man who said he had purchased the box from a Los Angeles salvage warehouse in the 1940s, bargaining the price down from $70 to $45. He saw they were views of Yosemite but never suspected they might be Adams's works until someone mentioned they resembled the famed photographer's shots. "We got a laugh out of that," Norsigian said.

But the idea stuck with Norsigian, and he started researching the photographer, eventually concluding that they were Adams's work.

The shots are of places Adams frequented and photographed. Several shots contain people identified as Adams associates. Adams taught at the Pasadena Art Center in the early 1940s, which would account for the negatives being in Los Angeles. The negatives are the size Adams used in the 1920s and '30s and several have charred edges, possibly indicating the 1937 fire.

"You keep adding bits and pieces," Norsigian said.

For years, he tried to get them officially verified, taking them to experts at the Smithsonian Institution, the Getty Center and others, but no one would venture to authenticate them.

Three years ago, he met Peter, who assembled experts to review the negatives. The key evidence came from two handwriting experts, who identified the writing on the negative sleeves as that of Adams's wife, Virginia.

But Matthew Adams said there were inconsistencies in the handwriting and a lot of misspelled Yosemite place names. "She grew up in Yosemite. She was an intelligent, well-read woman. I find it hard to believe she would mispell those names," he said.

-- Associated Press

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