Ansel Adams Or Not? The Answer's Worth Millions

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It's an irresistible story: A building painter in Fresno, Calif., hits the jackpot when he proves, after 10 years of trying, that he struck gold rummaging around at a garage sale.

That happened this week when Rick Norsigian announced to great fanfare that a batch of glass negatives he bought at a garage sale more than 10 years ago for $45 were taken by renowned photographer Ansel Adams. Speculation of their worth rose to $200 million.

That didn't go over too well with Adams' grandson and the estate, known as the Ansel Adams Trust. They're disputing the claims and threatening legal action. But, as you might expect, Norsigian plans to cash in just the same.

Norsigian enlisted a team of photography and handwriting experts to prove his claim. He even got a meteorologist who, looking at one of the negatives, declared the clouds and the snow cover proved it was taken on the same day Ansel Adams took one of his most famous photographs, the iconic Jeffrey pine tree in Yosemite.

But Matthew Adams, Ansel's grandson, isn't buying it.

"I don't believe they've proven the case," Adams says. "To make a claim that they're authentic and have a value they're claiming, to me, is irresponsible."

The managing trustee for the Adams estate is more blunt.

"I think they're bosh," William Turnage says. "We own copyright to Ansel's name." So if they are not Adams' photographs, Turnage says, they can't use his name to sell the images. "And if they are Ansel's negatives, we can stop them on that ground."

Going Against The Family

Norsigian says he's tried over the years to work with the family and the Ansel Adams Trust with no luck. He says some of the experts he approached told him they believed the glass negatives were Adams', but they would not put it in writing. "They're all afraid of the trust and the family, and I think they're afraid of retaliation."

Norsigian says he's not afraid. In fact, he's got big plans for the negatives. With help from his lawyer, Arnold Peter, he's launched a website where he'll sell prints. They're also planning a documentary and a public exhibition.

"We intend to display them as the lost negatives of Ansel Adams," Peter says, "as authenticated by the panel of experts that we have engaged."

But establishing whether these negatives are authentic is anything but black and white. Andy Grunberg chairs the photography department at the Corcoran College of Art and Design in Washington, D.C. He used to be the director of the Ansel Adams Center for Photography in San Francisco.

"It's harder in photography than it is in painting, because [in] painting there are experts who examine particular artist's paintings down to the brushstroke to the kind of pigments that they used," Grunberg says. "In photography, you have to use more circumstantial evidence."

A Printer's Printer

"First of all let me be very clear, I'm agnostic as to who took the photographs. All I'm doing is printing them," says photographer Jesse Kalisher who was commissioned to make the prints from Norsigian's negatives. Kalisher's work is in some major galleries, including Smithsonian museums and the Louvre. Kalisher is kind of the man in the middle; he says he's already gotten some angry e-mails from Ansel Adams fans.

"They were titled things like, 'Shame on you,'" he says. They "took me to the woodshed in typically rude terms."

Kalisher is quick to admit that what he produces will not be Ansel Adams prints. Adams was a master in the darkroom. His art was as much the printing process as taking the picture. Still, Kalisher is thrilled to be working with these images.

"Regardless who created the negatives, they deserve to be preserved for history — and they certainly cry out to be printed," he says.

There are a couple more twists to this story. As the week went on, two people came forward saying they know who took the negatives. One of them, an 87-year-old woman from Oakland, Calif., said they were taken by her Uncle Earl.

Not surprisingly, Turnage of the Ansel Adams Trust thinks she may be right.

"It's more likely they're Uncle Earl's than they're Ansel's," he says.

Whoever took the negatives, that $45 Norsigian paid for them is looking like a good investment.

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