Controversy over 'lost' Ansel Adams photos turns negative
By Alan Duke, CNN
a.. July 29, 2010

Los Angeles, California (CNN) -- A claim that several dozen glass plates
bought for $45 at a garage sale were negatives from Ansel Adams brought
an angry response of disbelief from the man who oversees the famed
photographer's trust.
Adams' grandson is also unconvinced. Matthew Adams, who runs the Ansel
Adams Gallery, said even if they are authenticated, they are not worth
much beyond their historical value.

The art dealer who placed their eventual value at more than $200 million
said Wednesday that the controversy is increasing their value by
"driving the market to them."

"They're making them so desirable," said David W. Streets. "People all
over the world are seeing this and saying 'I want one of each.'"

That controversy took a bitter turn a day after California wall painter
Rick Norsigian and his lawyer held a news conference at Streets' Beverly
Hills art gallery to say they have proof the negatives were created by
Ansel Adams.

William Turnage, the managing trustee of Adams' trust, called Norsigian
and those working with him "a bunch of crooks" who "are pulling a big
con job."

Norsigian's lawyer, Arnold Peter, called Turnage's attack "a shameful
and pointless disparagement of the professional reputations of some of
the top leaders in their respective fields."

The team of experts included two court-qualified handwriting experts, a
retired FBI agent and a former Assistant United States Attorney, Peter

Peter said that based on the overwhelming evidence they gathered "no
reasonable person would have any doubt that these, in fact, were the
long-lost images of Ansel Adams."

Turnage, who was Adams' business manager for before his death in 1984,
challenged the expertise of Norsigian's team, saying the only one with
art credentials was a "so-called expert that nobody has ever heard of
from Jackson Hole, Wyoming."

"They had to go out into the boonies to dig him up," Turnage said.

Norsigian's lawyer responded by calling Turnage an "elitist."

"Ansel Adams would likely be shocked and appalled at such blatant
arrogance and condensing commentary in his name," Peter said.

Turnage said Norsigian's strategy is to line up a long list of hired
experts to tell "a big lie."

"Hitler used that technique," Turnage said. "You don't tell a small one.
You tell a big one."

Peter said Turnage "has converted a professional disagreement over works
of art into a personal attack utilizing tactics that are grossly
offensive and unconscionable."

"Likening Rick Norsigian to Adolf Hitler is nothing more than yet
another bullying tactics designed to silence Mr. Norsigian," Peter said.

The lawyer invited Matthew Adams and Turnage "to engage in a meaningful
dialogue and examine the evidence which they have consistently refused
to do."

"We now offer them yet another opportunity to jointly agree on and hire
experts who are qualified to render a final opinion on the authenticity
of the negatives," Peter said. "Any honest and fair assessment will lead
to but one conclusion -- these are the lost negatives of Ansel Adams."

The approach was "to put these negatives on trial" using a "high burden
of proof" to show that the 65 glass plates were created by Adams, the
iconic American photographer whose images of the West inspired the

"I have sent people to prison for the rest of their lives for far less
evidence than I have seen in this case," said evidence and
burden-of-proof expert Manny Medrano, who was hired by Norsigian to help
authenticate the plates. "In my view, those photographs were done by
Ansel Adams."

Meanwhile, Matthew Adams said Wednesday, "I don't think that they've
proven that they are (authentic) ... And I don't know that you could
ever prove that they are."

Adams, who reviewed Norsigian's evidence last year, said he wanted more
scientific tests, including carbon-dating, to prove beyond a doubt that
the work was that of his grandfather.

He cited "a number of inconsistencies," including the conclusion by two
handwriting analysts that notations on manila envelopes containing the
plates were made by Ansel Adams' wife, Virginia Adams.

The envelopes had five misspellings of well-known Yosemite National Park
landmarks, he said. "Bridal Veil Falls" is misspelled twice as "Bridal
Vail Falls" and "Happy Isles" is misspelled "Happy Iles," Adams said.

Virginia Adams -- who spent most of her life in that area of California
-- would have spelled those names correctly, he said.

Handwriting experts Michael Nattenberg and Marcel Matley said they used
Virginia Adams' writing samples provided by the Adams' grandson to reach
their conclusion that it was her penmanship.

Matthew Adams said his belief that she was not the author of the
notations is based on copies of the envelopes given to him by Peter.

"I just looked at them myself," Adams said. "I did not hire experts."

Norsigian's team also said the locations of the photographs, which were
taken around San Francisco and Yosemite, helped prove their case.

"The fact that these locations were well-known to Adams, and visited by
him, further supports the proposition that all of the images in the
collection were most probably created by Adams," said art expert Robert

Matthew Adams said that circumstantial evidence was unconvincing, since
several other highly-skilled photographers were known to shoot at the
same places around the same period.

Even if Norsigian's glass plates are authentic Ansel Adams photographs,
they would have mostly historical value, "not anywhere near" the $200
million estimate given by Streets, Adams said.

Streets said his estimate was based on decades of print sales and rights
fees. "There will always be a demand for Ansel Adams' work," he said.
"The long-term potential is very easy to prove for these."

"You can't print original photographs from them because Ansel's not
around to print them," Matthew Adams said. "Anything you make from them
you would have to say is an unknown interpretation of something that may
be Ansel's."

The Ansel Adams Gallery is still producing prints, but with a printer
who was trained by Adams. The iconic artist died in 1984 at the age of

"A lot of the magic that he created was in the darkroom making the
print," his grandson said. "Ansel's not around to tell us how he would
have printed it."

Streets countered Adams, saying, "It's not a mysterious process."

"There are master printmakers who are making prints today," he said.

Norsigian has contracted with Jesse Kallisher, whose prints hang in the
Smithsonian and the Louvre museums, to produce original fine arts prints
from the negatives, Streets said.

While Matthew Adams is unconvinced, he doesn't doubt that Norsigian is
sincere in his belief that he has Ansel Adams negatives. "I think that
they do believe it, but I don't think that they have proven it," he

He doesn't agree, however, with Turnage's charge that it's a "con job."

"My take on it is that it is irresponsible to present them as Ansel's,"
Matthew Adams said.

Norsigian, a painter for the Fresno school system, kept the glass plates
under his pool table for four years before realizing they may be too
valuable to store at home.

He believes they were from Adams' early career, a period that is not
well documented since a 1937 darkroom fire destroyed 5,000 of his

"It truly is a missing link of Ansel Adams and history and his career,"
Streets said.

Norsigian, who scours garage sales for antiques, was looking for a
barber chair when he spotted two deteriorated boxes in the spring of

When he pulled one of the glass negatives out, he saw Yosemite.

"As a young man, I worked at Yosemite quite a bit. So, right away I
recognized it as Yosemite," Norsigian said.

He bickered with the seller, finally negotiating the price for the boxes
down from $70 to $45. The owner said he bought them in the 1940s at a
warehouse salvage sale in Los Angeles.

It would be two years before Norsigian realized the photos may be from
Adams, he said. After four years, he had done enough research to realize
the plates could be valuable. He moved them from under his pool table
and placed them in a bank vault.

How these 6.5-inch x 8.5-inch glass plate negatives of famous Yosemite
landscapes and San Francisco landmarks -- some of them showing fire
damage -- made their way from Adams collection 70 years ago to a
Southern California garage sale in 2000 can only be guessed.

Photography expert Patrick Alt, who helped confirm the authenticity of
the negatives, suspects Adams carried them to use in a photography class
he was teaching in Pasadena, California, in the early 1940s.

"It is my belief that he brought these negatives with him for teaching
purposes and to show students how to not let their negatives be engulfed
in a fire," Alt said. "I think this clearly explains the range of work
in these negatives, from very early pictorialist boat pictures, to
images not as successful, to images of the highest level of his work
during this time period."

Alt said it is impossible to know why Adams would store them in Pasadena
and never reclaim them.

For now, the photos will go on a tour of universities and museums,
starting in October at Fresno State University, Norsigian said.

"I just hope everybody enjoys them," he said.

Norsigian said he has not spoken with the man who sold him the two boxes
a decade ago.

"If he's still around, I'm afraid he may come looking for me," he said.

Norsigian, who is 64, is still working but said he may retire this year.

From: A. Papazian