Ansel Adams, the 'lost negatives' and a $200m lawsuit

A decade-long battle over images of Yosemite National Park has been settled, but who took them remains a mystery

Guy Adams@guyadams
Thursday 17 March 2011 01:00

The curved pine tree sits on top of Sentinel Rock, one of many natural wonders hewn out of granite in Yosemite National Park. The intrepid climber perched on an overhanging cliff-top is, meanwhile, Ansel Hall, who served as the official park naturalist between 1920 and 1923. The trees and waterfalls look as majestic now as they did back then.

Beyond these facts, there's very little about this collection of images that hasn't, at some point, been the subject of fierce dispute in a $200m legal battle between their current owner Rick Norsigian, and the estate of Ansel Adams – the "father" of US photography, whose black-and-white images of the American West are a highly lucrative staple of the greetings card and calendar industry.

The affair stretches back a decade, to the day when Mr Norsigian, a construction worker and amateur antiques buff, purchased the glass negatives from which the pictures were taken at a garage sale in Fresno, California. He paid the princely sum of $45, beating the seller down from an initial asking price of $75, and several years later decided to hire an attorney to investigate their provenance.

In July, that attorney, Arnold Peter, presented his findings. The 65 pictures weren't just valuable, he claimed. They were, in fact, the early work of Ansel Adams. The photographs were taken between 1919 and 1937 and rescued from a house fire in 1930. At a rough guess, their value was now in the region of $200m. "When I heard that [figure], I got a little weak," Mr Norsigian told reporters.

The discovery sparked international media attention, and drove hordes of potential buyers to an internet site where Mr Norsigian swiftly began selling a range of "hand-numbered" and "limited edition" prints for up to $7,500 each, billing them as part of a collection taken from "Ansel Adams' lost negatives".

But there was a big problem. Despite the claims of the various paid "experts," Mr Norsigian and his attorney had hired to investigate the images, the art world was deeply sceptical as to whether the photographs really were the work of Adams. Several independent investigators claimed they were instead likely to be the work of Earl Brooks, a resident of 1920s Fresno who later became a moderately well-known portrait photographer in Delaware.

In August, the Ansel Adams Trust, which controls copyright to his work, duly filed an aggressive lawsuit, disputing the suggestion that the pictures were taken by Adams, and contending that their sale violated commercial trademark. William Turnage, the trust's managing director of the trust, used a CNN interview to describe Mr Norsigian and his team as "crooks" and "con men". He then likened their authentication efforts to the propaganda techniques used in Nazi Germany by Adolf Hitler.

This being America, Mr Norsigian's reaction to the lawsuit was swift and uncompromising. He counter-sued, on the grounds that (according to a report in the Art Newspaper) Mr Turnage and the trust had been guilty of such crimes as "slander, defamation, unfair competition, trade libel, civil conspiracy and wrongful interference with a prospective economic advantage".

While authenticating any artwork is a matter of opinion, the potential provenance of the pictures was "a matter of significant public concern," Mr Norsigian's lawyers argued. His commercial activities should therefore be protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution.

Yesterday, after months of expensive legal jousting, and airing of much dirty laundry, the competing cases were settled, out of court. A joint statement said that while both sides continue to deny each other's claims regarding the pictures, they "have now agreed to resolve these disputes". Each side will pay its own legal costs, and Mr Norsigian will be permitted to carry on selling prints provided he doesn't market them as the work of Adams.

Last night, pictures were once more being sold by Mr Norsigian on a website that touted them as simply "The Lost Negatives". In an effort to counter claims of profiteering, he also claimed to be giving away a "free poster" of one of the images.

To get hold of it, visitors were required to do one small thing: pay $12.50 for "shipping and handling".

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