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Ansel Adams Trust Sues Owner of Disputed Negatives

The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust has filed a trademark-infringement lawsuit against a Fresno, Calif., man who claims that a group of glass photographic plates dating from the 1920s or ’30s that he purchased for $45 at a garage sale in California 10 years ago could be early negatives created by Ansel Adams.

NEW YORK—The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust has filed a trademark-infringement lawsuit against a Fresno, Calif., man who claims that a group of glass photographic plates dating from the 1920s or ’30s that he purchased for $45 at a garage sale in California 10 years ago could be early negatives created by Ansel Adams.

The buyer of the 65 negatives, school maintenance worker Rick Norsigian, has had them authenticated by a “team of experts,” and then appraised for $200million, according to Norsigian’s lawyer, Arnold Peter of Peter, Rubin & Simon, Los Angeles. The lawsuit also names PRS Media Partners, a consulting firm of which Peter is a founding partner, as a defendant for its role in marketing the disputed works, according to the complaint.

No sales are likely to take place in the immediate future, because the trust, which controls the rights to the photographer’s work, filed a ­trademark-infringement lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California in San Francisco to block any sale of prints made from the negatives that uses the Ansel Adams name.

Norsigian hired Peter to assemble a team of experts to evaluate the authenticity of the negatives after “running into roadblocks” in trying to make contact with members of the Adams family as well as with the Ansel Adams trust, Peter told ARTnewsletter. According to a report of their findings posted on Norsigian’s Web site, the experts he assembled included Robert C. Moeller III, a former curator of European sculpture and decorative arts at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and two handwriting analysts—Michael Nattenberg and Marcel Matley—who concluded that the writing on the manila envelopes in which the negatives were kept was that of Virginia Adams, the photographer’s wife.

Other experts include Patrick Alt, a photographer who has worked with the same large-format camera that Adams used at the time the images were purportedly made, and George Wright, a meteorologist for WABC and WPIX in New York, who compared the cloud formations in known works by Adams with those seen in the disputed negatives.

“We know the family doesn’t agree with us and with our findings,” Peter said, “but we believe that we have strong evidence that these are the works of Ansel Adams.”

According to a story in the New York Times, Moeller has withdrawn his attribution of “at least some” of the plates to Adams, stating he now believes that they were most likely produced by another photographer, Earl Brooks. Moeller could not be reached for comment as ARTnewsletter was published.

Katherine Martinez, director of the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona—which holds Adams’s archives and was cofounded by the photographer—issued a statement on the center’s Web site on Aug. 31, which reads, in part: “We are aware of the claims made by Rick Norsigian regarding photographic negatives in his possession. We have no reason to believe that these negatives are, in fact, the work of Ansel Adams, and we support the efforts of the Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust to protect its rights in this matter.”

The photographer’s grandson, Matthew Adams, has also expressed doubt about the authenticity of the plates, as have a number of major private dealers in photography. Manhattan photography dealer Robert Mann said, “Having worked with Ansel Adams for a number of years, I know that he was very organized and meticulous. I don’t believe that he would have misplaced this many negatives and kept them a secret.”

“Even if they were by Ansel Adams, which is debatable, the importance of the find is overblown,” New York photography dealer Bruce Silverstein told ARTnewsletter.

Dealers say that the prices for Adams’s vintage prints from the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s may reach the mid six figures at galleries, and auction prices have frequently been in the high six figures. Mann said that prices for Adams prints “have continued to rise. It’s supply and demand. Works come up for sale with less frequency, but there is no diminishing of demand.”

The highest public sale price for Adams’s work was $722,500, paid last June at Sotheby’s for the image Clearing Winter Storm, Yosemite National Park, 1938 (likely printed in the 1950s), well exceeding the estimate of $300,000/500,000. Other top prices include $609,600, paid for Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, 1941, at Sotheby’s in 2006 (estimate: $150,000/250,000), and $518,500 for another print of the same image, probably made in 1950, at Sotheby’s last June (estimate: $300,000/500,000).

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