Tale of Ansel Adams negatives grows hazy
Posted: 08/15/2010 09:05:14 AM PDT
Updated: 08/15/2010 09:05:15 AM PDT
SAN FRANCISCO — It was a dream come true, straight out of “Antiques Roadshow.” In 2000 Rick Norsigian, a painter in a school maintenance department, bought a box of photo negatives at a garage sale in Fresno for $45. Last month, a decade later, he stood in a Beverly Hills art gallery to announce that a team of experts had concluded “beyond a reasonable doubt” that Ansel Adams had taken the pictures.
The gallery’s owner, David Streets, appraised the value of the 65 images, which experts called “the lost negatives,” at $200 million, and the incident made international news.
But a fairy-tale ending is eluding Norsigian. A day after the announcement, Matthew Adams, a grandson of the photographer, disputed the finding, questioned the credentials of the experts and went so far as to call the whole business a “scam.”
The story made the evening news in the Bay Area. Watching TV in her den in Oakland was Marian Walton, a former secretary and grandmother of four whose family hailed from the Fresno and Visalia area. She saw Norsigian’s picture of the Jeffrey pine on Yosemite’s Sentinel Dome flash on her screen. “Oh my gosh,” Walton thought to herself. “That’s Uncle Earl’s picture!” She didn’t even have to get out of her chair to make the comparison — it was hanging on the bathroom wall, in clear view from where she sat, she said in a recent interview.
Walton called the TV station, KTVU, and the next day, after her weekly tennis game, she got a visit from a reporter and Scott Nichols, owner of a San Francisco photo gallery that did a considerable business in Ansel Adams prints. Nichols took the Jeffrey pine picture and three other Yosemite shots from Uncle Earl Brooks that Walton had kept in a drawer.
KTVU did a story on Walton’s picture, with Nichols saying there was only a minute difference between it and the one on Norisigian’s website, which the Fresno school district employee had posted as one of 17 images he’d begun selling for $7,500 for a hand-made print, $1,500 for a digital one and $45 for a poster.
Nichols told The Los Angeles Times last week that the slight differences in the tree’s shadow and the clouds behind it were probably caused by a short time lapse between the taking of each picture. Everything else — the focus, brightness and angle, were the same. It was the best evidence yet, he said, of what he and other dealers, as well as Adams’ family and professional circle of former assistants already had concluded: that Norsigian’s negatives had been shot by somebody other than America’s greatest nature photographer.
And now, in the latest complication, court records reveal that Streets, who set the value for the negatives and is handling the related sales, is a felon with a criminal record for petty theft and fraud in Louisiana and Kentucky. Although he says on his website, davidstreetsbeverlyhills.com, that he has 25 years of fine-art appraisal experience, two of Streets’ former employers say his true talent is in the embellishment of his credentials.
Doris Allen, who owns the Bryant Galleries in New Orleans, says that although Streets, 45, can be “very charming,” he had said he had no appraisal experience when she hired him at her business in 2000. Now she is amazed to see him occupy an influential role in a national art debate.
“How can he get up there and claim that those negatives are worth $200 million?” she said. “That is absurd.”
The discussion of just who took the pictures is far from over, and Norsigian’s lawyer, Arnold Peter, said Streets’ past has little bearing on that question. But in a subjective field where credibility and expertise matter, it cannot help Norsigian that Streets’ resume appears to be tarnished.
For his part, Streets initially denied in an interview that he was the same David Streets who was convicted of passing bad checks, fraud and petty theft over a seven-year period that ended in 1998 when he was in his early 30s. But he later sent an e-mail in which he cited his extensive civic involvement in recent years, described the incidents as old and attributed them to “untreated manic-depression” that he began to experience after his mother “committed suicide when I was 15, and my father died the following year.”
“I took complete responsibility and learned from that experience,” he said.
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The art debate has its roots in Norsigian’s purchase of the box of negatives, a rummage-sale find that took on a new light when he later noticed in an Adams biography that certain features of the purchased plate-glass negatives, which depict California landscape scenes from Carmel, Yosemite and around San Francisco, seemed to match events in Adams’ life. In particular, the plates showed evidence of fire damage, and in 1937 Adams lost negatives to a darkroom fire.
“The size, the fire damage, the locations and different stuff like that,” Norsigian said. “I kept researching little pieces at a time.”
He took his discovery to members of the Adams family, who disputed his claims. Adams had been notoriously protective of his negatives, locking them in a bank vault when he lived in San Francisco. Would he misplace a box of negatives?
“Ansel would never have done something like that,” said William Turnage, managing trustee of the Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust, which owns the rights to Adams’ name and work.
But in 2007 Norsigian and Peter, his lawyer, set about organizing an authentication team that included a former FBI agent, a former U.S. attorney, two handwriting experts, a meteorologist (to track cloud patterns in the images), a landscape photographer and a former curator of European decorative arts and sculpture for the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
They concluded the prints were of the sort made by Adams as a young photographer in the 1920s.
Peter said he decided to market the materials through Streets, whom he did not know but whose work as a dealer he was aware of. Streets, who moved to California from New Orleans in 2005, bills himself as “Los Angeles’ leading appraiser of all genres of fine art and celebrity memorabilia.”
Peter said it was Streets who came up with the
$200 million figure the night before their July 27 news conference.
“The $200 million represents several sources of revenue over an extended period of time — reprints, licensing, eventual sale of the negatives,” Peter said.
But even a member of Norsigian’s authentication team has expressed doubts about the estimate. Patrick Alt, a photographer, said that he believed that Adams did create the negatives but that he found Streets’ appraisal estimate “outrageous.”
It certainly will be difficult to support that value if the photos were taken by Brooks, Walton’s uncle, now deceased, who dabbled in photography. Walton, 87, said, “I about fell off my sofa” when she saw Norsigian’s announcement on television. The image on the screen looked exactly like a photo by her uncle that she had hung on her bathroom wall: a picture of the leaning Jeffrey pine in Yosemite that she had inherited from her father in 1981.
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Two former Adams assistants, John Sexton and Alan Ross, have since agreed with her, saying tell-tale shadows and dust spots indicated that the two Yosemite pictures, Norsigian’s and Walton’s, were taken at the same time with the same camera.
Nothing about that development has dissuaded the Norsigian team from moving forward with sales, staged out of Streets’ gallery.
Streets has become something of a fixture in some Beverly Hills circles. Last May the mayor there, Jimmy Delshad, read a proclamation at a party Streets held on the anniversary of his gallery’s opening. But the mayor’s office later said he did not declare it “David W. Streets Day,” as it says on Streets’ website. Streets held a similarly high profile in New Orleans, even after his criminal convictions, for which he received probation and was, in one case, required to pay $19,000 restitution.
Allen said she did not know when she hired him that he had a criminal record, including a charge for pocketing a $600 deposit that a woman had made toward a couch at a furniture store where he had worked.
Allen, though, said she and her husband had a dispute with Streets and demoted him in 2004, after which he left and ended up working for at least one other gallery in New Orleans. She characterized his director’s position as primarily a sales job.
The continuing dispute has not shut down the sale of prints, which Norsigian has priced from $1,500 to $7,500; posters are going for $45. Peter declined to say how many have been sold or what percentage Streets is receiving as the dealer.
Copyright claims may well be brought by the Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust.
A solid outcome from the haze of the dispute has been the discovery of a new photographic star. In November, Nichols will be hosting a show of work by Adams and his assistants, and he has decided to include photos by Brooks too.
“Uncle Earl is a damned good photographer,” Nichols said, “There’s no doubt about it.”
The Los Angeles Times contributed to this story.