The grandson of Ansel Adams is casting doubt on a man who claims negatives he bought at a garage sale a decade ago were shot by the legendary photographer. Another expert goes so far as calling the case an "unfortunate fraud."
The story begins 10 years ago in Los Angeles, when Fresno artist Rick Norsigian bought 65-year-old-glass negatives for $45, bargaining the owner down from $70. Norsigian didn't think much of them until a friend noticed the Yosemite landscape shots looked like Adams' work.
"We got a laugh out of that," Norsigian (above) said at a news conference in Beverly Hills on Tuesday.
But Norsigian decided to do some research and eventually concluded they were indeed shot by Adams. 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 a 1937 fire that destroyed much of Adams' early work.
For years, Norsigian tried to get them officially verified, taking them to experts at the Smithsonian Institution, the Getty Center and others, but no one would take on the project. Three years ago he met a Beverly Hills entertainment lawyer named Arnold Peter, who put together a team of experts to review the negatives.
Peter said the experts concluded "beyond a reasonable doubt" that they were shot by Adams.
The key evidence, says Peter, came from two handwriting experts, who identified the writing on the negative sleeves as that of Adams' wife Virginia.
But Adams' grandson Matthew has more than a reasonable doubt. "There is no real hard evidence," he said. "I'm skeptical."
For one thing, he 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 misspell those names," he said.
Adams, who runs the Ansel Adams Gallery in San Francisco, also said it was unlikely his grandfather would have misplaced the negatives, especially after the devastating fire that destroyed 5,000 negatives -- a third of his portfolio. "Ansel was very meticulous about his negatives," he said. "He kept them in a bank vault in San Francisco after the fire."
Bill Turnage, managing director of the Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust, also doubts the verification. "It's very distressing. It's an unfortunate fraud."
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."
Norsigian's experts value the negatives at some $200 million. Norsigian is already planning to cash in. He's 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.
However, Turnage said even if the negatives are real, they are worthless without the master himself making the prints in his darkroom.
"Ansel interpreted the negative very heavily. He believed the negative was like a musical score. No two composers will interpret it the same way," he said. "Each print is a work of art."
Turnage said he's consulting lawyers about possibly suing Norsigian for using a copyrighted name for commercial purposes.