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Adams’s trust calls discovery a fraud

Man says he has 65 glass negatives

By Christina Hoag
Associated Press / July 28, 2010

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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, a lawyer for the owner said yesterday, but the iconic photographer’s representatives dismissed the assertion as a fraud and said they’re worthless.

Arnold Peter, who represents Fresno painter and construction worker Rick Norsigian, said a team of specialists 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 82.

His photographs are widely reproduced on calendars, 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, is planning to capitalize on his discovery. He has set up a website 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 assertions.

“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.

“There is no real hard evidence,’’ he said. “I’m skeptical.’’

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, concluding 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 specialists at the Smithsonian Institution, the Getty Center, and others, but no one would venture to authenticate them.