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Lawsuits over disputed Ansel Adams 'lost negatives' settled

Rick Norsigian and the Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust settle their competing suits, with Norsigian still able to sell the nature prints on his website although he cannot use Adams' name or trademark.

March 15, 2011|By Mike Boehm, Los Angeles Times
  • Rick Norsigian with the prints made from a stash of negatives he bought at a garage sale that he has claimed is the work of Ansel Adams.
Rick Norsigian with the prints made from a stash of negatives he bought at… (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles…)

Ending a legal dispute that began last summer, Rick Norsigian has agreed to stop using Ansel Adams' name, likeness, or the "Ansel Adams" trademark as he continues to sell prints and posters of Yosemite and coastal California that he has long contended document "lost negatives" shot by the great nature photographer.

Norsigian has spent the last decade trying to prove that the 65 old-fashioned glass-plate negatives he bought at a Fresno garage sale were taken by Adams in the 1920s and 1930s and represent a previously missing chapter in the photographer's oeuvre.

The settlement of federal lawsuits between Norsigian and his marketing partner, L.A.-based PRS Media Partners, on one side and the Marin County-based Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust on the other was announced by the parties in a news statement Monday.

In their statement, the Adams Trust and Norsigian/PRS said both sides continue to deny the other's claims, but "have now agreed to resolve these disputes" in a confidential settlement, with each side paying its own legal and court costs. Norsigian may continue to sell his prints, but under the settlement he must use a disclaimer that has been approved by the Adams Trust.

On Tuesday, visitors to who clicked on a "shop online" option were greeted by the statement, "merchandise sold through this website … is sold as is with no representation or warranty of authenticity as a work of Ansel Adams."

Matthew Adams, the photographer's grandson who disputes Norsigian's claims, said Tuesday that he didn't know the terms of the settlement, "but I would assume it's been settled to our satisfaction in that Mr. Norsigian cannot use Ansel's name to sell these negatives that are very clearly not from Ansel. And hopefully, that ends it."

Adams and the Ansel Adams Gallery he runs were not parties to the litigation.

William Turnage, managing trustee of the Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust, said Tuesday that the terms of the settlement prohibited the parties from commenting further; Arnold Peter, the Beverly Hills attorney who represents Norsigian and is a principal in PRS Media Partners, also declined to comment.

In the initial suit filed Aug. 23, the Adams Trust contended that Norsigian was violating its commercial trademark on the Ansel Adams name by using it to sell prints for $1,500 and $7,500 via a "Lost Negatives" website that had gone up less than a month earlier. Norsigian and his partners had drawn national attention in late July with a Beverly Hills news conference announcing that the negatives had been authenticated and appraised at $200 million or more — the value, over the coming decades, of selling the prints and posters.

Matthew Adams, the independent Adams Trust and some of Ansel Adams' former photographic assistants immediately disputed the claim and set about trying to debunk it. Soon, they and a leading San Francisco dealer in Adams' work were advancing the theory that the "lost negatives" had been shot by Earl Brooks, a Fresno area man who later became a portrait photographer in Delaware.

Norsigian and PRS had argued in a response to the initial lawsuit that their enterprise, and its use of Adams' name and image, was part of an inquiry into "a matter of significant public concern," and therefore protected by the 1st Amendment. The Adams Trust argued that Norsigian's motive was profit, not free inquiry, and that he had no right to use the trademarked name commercially.

In a December countersuit, Norsigian and PRS alleged that they had been defamed by Turnage in published comments describing them as "crooks" and "con-men," and likening their claims to Nazi propaganda. They also alleged that Turnage had improperly pressured officials at the University of Arizona's Center for Creative Photography, co-established by Adams and the repository of the bulk of his work, to take sides in the dispute after initially refusing to comment.

In late August, the center's director, Katharine Martinez, issued a statement saying "we have no reason to believe that [Norsigian's] negatives are, in fact, the work of Ansel Adams," and expressing support for the Adams Trust's lawsuit. This, Norsigian and PRS contended, constituted an illegal conspiracy between the Adams Trust and the university (which was also named as a defendant) to damage their efforts to market prints of the "lost negatives."

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