Did we ever tell you about the time we discovered a work by Robert Ryman at a tag sale in Cheboygan? Turns out it was just a blank white canvas, but hey, we only paid $3 (and that included a saltwater-bloated copy of Farewell to Manzanar), so no harm done. But another bargain hunter refuses to give up on his quest to prove that the 65 glass negatives he bought at a Fresno garage sale in 2000 are in fact the early work of famed photographer Ansel Adams, who died in 1984. Retired building painter Rick Norsigian (who we suspect is an Antiques Roadshow fan) has spent the past decade trying to authenticate the negatives, which include Adams-eque shots of Yosemite National Park. His attorney now claims that “a team of experts” has studied the negatives and concluded “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the photos were Adams’ early work, believed to have been destroyed in a 1937 fire at his Yosemite studio. Specialists in Adams’ work were not among the empanelled experts, and the photograher’s heirs remain skeptical. “It’s an unfortunate fraud,” said Bill Turnage, managing director of the Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust, in an interview with Reuters. “It’s very distressing.” And yet:
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 the 1937 fire.
But analysis of handwriting on the envelopes encasing the negatives and of the cloud formations depicted in the shots has only, well, clouded the debate. For example, the annotations, thought to be in the hand of Adams’ wife (who grew up in Yosemite), are rife with misspellings. Matthew Adams, grandson of Ansel, has suggested carbon dating the charring and the envelopes. Meanwhile, a Beverly Hills art appraiser has estimated the value of the negatives (if authentic) at $200 million, based on current sales of Adams’ prints and the potential for selling never-seen-before prints. Norsigian purchased them for $45, having bargained the seller down from his original asking price of $70. He’s now selling prints from the negatives starting at $1,500 each.