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Negatives 'authenticated' as Ansel Adams' work — but by whom?

Rick Norsigian couldn't win over experts on the photographer, so his authentication report was by two relative unknowns. And even they doubt the find is worth $200 million.

August 12, 2010|By Mike Boehm, Los Angeles Times
  • Rick Norsigian holding up a print from the found negatives.
Rick Norsigian holding up a print from the found negatives. (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles…)

The case of the "lost" Ansel Adams negatives that purportedly are worth $200 million has turned into a public argument between Rick Norsigian, who found them at a Fresno garage sale 10 years ago, and the great photographer's family and former associates and leading art-photography dealers, who deny that Adams took them.

The brouhaha might have been avoided had Norsigian, a wall-painter for the Fresno school district, taken the advice years ago of Adams biographer Jonathan Spaulding. Norsigian had brought the negatives to Spaulding's office at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County; Spaulding suggested that he send them to a museum or public archive where professionals could make a thorough study.

Instead, Norsigian went on trying to authenticate the pictures on his own. Eventually he assembled his own team of paid experts — all virtual unknowns in the photography world. Despite their lack of cachet, the report and appraisal Norsigian issued last month made headlines all over the world, because it concluded not only that the 65 glass-plate negatives of Yosemite and coastal California had been taken by Adams in the 1920s and early 1930s but also that they were worth at least $200 million.

Norsigian's top authenticators, art consultant Robert C. Moeller III and photographer Patrick Alt, respectively described that sum this week as "puzzling" and a "bunch of crap."

Spaulding, now executive director of the Museum of the American West at L.A.'s Autry National Center, recalled this week how Norsigian had visited him about seven years ago, bringing the negatives in a box.

Spaulding says he told Norsigian that, although the pictures could have been taken by Adams, he wasn't sure and that the best thing would be to get them into the hands of curators who would know how to do tests and comparisons with an eye toward establishing who took them.

"They looked like rather clichéd views of Yosemite, technically skillful but really not outstanding," recalled Spaulding, who at the time was director of the Natural History Museum's Seaver Center for Western History Research. "But that wasn't totally inconsistent. Ansel was in his 20s then, and it wasn't inconceivable that he was doing work of that sort. But it felt to me like it could have been any number of commercial photographers working at that time."

Norsigian failed to enlist people like Spaulding, whose book, "Ansel Adams and the American Landscape," was published in 1995, or Mary Street Alinder, who was the photographer's chief assistant from 1979 until his death in 1984. Sheco-wrote the Adams autobiography published in 1986 and followed it with her own book, "Ansel Adams: A Biography." Instead, Norsigian ended up with Alt, who says the law firm working with Norsigian found him on the Internet, and Moeller, who said he was contacted by a firm member who knew him.

"I don't recognize the names. It seems very questionable to me," said Deborah Klochko, executive director of San Diego's Museum of Photographic Arts.

"To think you can authenticate these to make a lot of money; that's a problem right there," Klochko added. She said she hopes Norsigian will donate his find to the University of Arizona's Center for Creative Photography, which Adams co-founded and made the repository for his work.

Alinder said she looked at the pictures with an open mind when Norsigian approached her in 2002, thinking "it would be wonderful" if he indeed had unearthed unknown Ansel Adams pictures. But "I thought almost all of them did not measure up," she said, although the handwriting on the sleeves containing the negatives did look to her like that of Virginia Adams, the photographer's wife. She said she continued to help Norsigian with contacts to pursue his quest, then stopped in 2004 after he offered her 25% of any earnings from future sales of the negatives in return for helping him prove their authenticity.

Alinder said it offended her that Norsigian's motive now appeared to be money. "That was the end for me. I don't think Mr. Norsigian is a bad person, but he wants so hard to believe this that he doesn't see all the corners he's bent."

Norsigian responded through his attorney, Arnold Peter, whose Beverly Hills firm is helping him market prints priced at $7,500 and $1,500, with posters at $45. Norsigian offered Alinder a percentage of earnings from the negatives to serve as a consultant, Peter said, but she would not have been required to vouch for their authenticity. "He had basically hit a wall," Peter said. "People would tell him these were Ansel Adams works but wouldn't go on record, and she could help by opening doors, making introductions."

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