'Ansel Adams' negatives could be worth $200m - but are they really his?

A decade ago, Fresno painter Rick Norsigian stumbled upon a box of 65 glass negatives in a sale purchased the box from a man who claimed he bought them from a Los Angeles salvage warehouse in the 1940s.

Not that Norsigian was prepared to pay any price for it. He refused the initial price tag of $75 and argued the man down to $45. It was later that someone else commented - not entirely seriously - that the images of Yosemite resembled work of Ansel Adams (pictured above).

Norsigian didn't take this seriously at first, but the idea stuck with him and in recent years he has spent a great deal of time trying to prove that they are in fact the acclaimed photographer's work.

Adams work produced images recognisable to many who would not recognise his name. He was most famous for his pictures of the American West and, through his playing with shadows, moody, character-filled images emerged from his darkroom.

Norsigian has assembled a team of experts which he claims has proved that the images are Adams's beyond reasonable doubt, and art appraiser David W Streets has said that if so the collection could be worth at least $200m.

Ansel Adams's Photograph of Yosemite
Confirmed Ansel Adams's Photograph of Yosemite
(sold at Christie's for $40,000)

However, Bill Turnage, managing director of the Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust, has reacted with irritation and is even considering suing Norsigian for mis-using Adams's name for his own commercial purposes.

The claim is not based exclusively on judging Adams's style - which divides opinions. Norsigian has had two handwriting experts judge that the writing on the envelopes in the box is that of Adams's wife.

He even brought in a meteorologist who studied the cloud formation, snowdrift and shadows in one image and compared it with another photograph by Adams, concluding they were taken together on the same day.

Family representative Matthew Adams has disputed the handwriting claims in particular, suggesting that the writing is inconsistent, and includes misspellings of Yosemite place names which Ansel's wife would never have made.

Turnage has also cast doubt on the Street estimate even allowing for authenticity, saying that Adams's genius was in the darkroom, not with the camera in his hands, and extrapolating from the value of prints to greater value for the negatives is simply mistaken.

Yosemite National Park achieved $722,500 for an Ansel print Clearing Winter Storm at a New York auction in June - a record for 20th century photography. Norsigian is looking to offer darkroom prints from the negatives at $7,500. The market will make its own judgments on his claims.


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