$200 million price tag on "Ansel Adams" negatives highly questionable

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Rick Norsigian shows photo proported to be taken by Ansel AdamsDuring the 1920's, photographer Ansel Adams was the custodian of a lodge in Yosemite National Park, so it is no surprise that many of his most iconic landscapes were of features such as Half Dome and El Capitan. Now a California man, Rick Norsigian, believes the 65 glass landscape negatives he bought for $45 at a garage sale were taken by Adams. If so, one estimator puts their worth at $200 million.

There are a couple of reasons to doubt that this figure is grounded in reality, however. First, there is debate that these are indeed authentic Adams photographs.

Those claiming authenticity cite various pieces of evidence from their team of experts, which included, according to the Wall Street Journal, handwriting analysts, a photographer and an art adviser. None, however, were experts on Adams' work.

An appraiser then placed a value on the collection of $200 million, which seems far too high. It's not that his negatives are rare. Although his darkroom, in Yosemite Valley, caught fire in 1937 and burned up hundreds of negatives that had never been printed, the University of Arizona today houses his archives, including 44,000 negatives.

The managing trustee of the Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust, Bill Turnage, told the WSJ that he doesn't believe that the negatives are Adams'. He pointed out that many, many people were photographing the park during the time period when these were likely taken, the 1920s. He suggested carbon-dating the photos to establish their age.

However, I talked to Ron Hatfield, Deputy Director of Beta, the world's largest professional carbon-dating service, who told me that carbon dating would not work on glass negatives, because there is no carbon to date. Carbon dating can only be done on materials that were once alive. He also pointed out that even if prints of these photos existed, the paper used for the prints would be made up of trees of various ages, so the carbon date would be highly debatable.

The views captured in the photos are not unusual, either. They are some of the most popular, and probably half the households in America that have visited Yosemite have exactly the same perspectives. While many resemble later photos by Adams that became famous, they lack some of the tension that distinguish his best work. If they are authentic, they show him developing his style, but it is not yet in full flower. Compare his Jeffrey Pine, for example, with a similar shot from this new collection.

According to CNN, Matthew Adams, head of the Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite, said that even if these are Adams' work, the value estimate is wildly inflated. Adams was one of the first photographers that was able to successfully sell his original prints as art objects. This is in part because he was a master in the darkroom, never better illustrated that his famous Moonrise, Hernandez, in which he layered a dark sky, the moon, clouds, a distant mountain range and a cross-filled graveyard. This mastery is one reason experts doubt the worth of this set of plates; even if they prove to be Adams' work, he is no longer around to bring them to life.

Without a rock-solid provenance for these negatives, I doubt the owner will realize more than chump change in comparison to the $200 million dream. Those looking for Adams' best work will find that it is already on the market.
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