Ten years ago, Rick Norsigian made a $200 million find.
The Fresno, Calif., painter — who has a penchant for antique hunting on his days off — was rummaging through boxes at a garage sale when he came across 65 glass negatives that were wrapped in newspapers from 1942 and 1943.
Turns out the negatives, which Norsigian bought for $45 after talking the seller down from $70, are those of the famous nature photographer Ansel Adams. And they’re worth hundreds of millions, according to some appraisers.
"These photographs are really the missing link," said Arnold Peter, a lawyer for Norsigian, at the unveiling of the negatives at a Los Angeles art gallery Tuesday. "They really fill the void in Ansel Adams' early career."
A team of experts put together by Norsigian said the glass plates, which portray scenes from Yosemite National Park and San Francisco, were likely taken between 1919 and the early 1930s. They were previously believed to have been destroyed in a 1937 darkroom fire that consumed 5,000 glass negatives.
"This illuminates a very important part of his evolution as an artist because this is the work that he did in his 20s,” Patrick Alt, a photography expert who says the prints are authentic, told the L.A. Daily News in November 2009. “He had images that didn't fit in anywhere, that show he is trying to discover his voice, to fully realized Ansel Adams masterpieces."
Adams is best known for his striking black-and-white photographs, mainly landscapes, of the American West. He died in 1984 at 82.
The experts concluded a six-month examination of the negatives in order to verify, once and for all, that they are genuine, Peter said.
The real deal?
Others, however, are not entirely convinced the prints are the real deal.
Although Peter, Alt, and a number of other experts and appraisers say Norsigian’s find is an authentic collection of some of Adams’ early work, Adams’ own grandson is a skeptic.
“I don’t think you can prove absolutely that they are or that they are not real,” Matthew Adams, who is president of the Ansel Adams Gallery, told msnbc.com Tuesday. “And I think it’s irresponsible to claim they are Ansel’s without more proof.”
Matthew Adams said the writing on the sleeves of the negatives, which is attributed to Ansel Adams' wife, Virginia, is inconsistent with other samples of her handwriting and contains a number of misspellings of the names of places in Yosemite that Virginia would have known how to spell.
He also said the numbering of the slides is inconsistent with Ansel Adams' method for numbering his works.
Even if they were real, Matthew Adams said it is unlikely they would be worth $200 million.
"This is an elaborate fraud, intended purely to make money," said Bill Turnage, Managing Trustee of the Adams Publishing Rights Trust and Ansel Adams' former business manager. "A couple of lawyers in L.A. behind this fellow, who has been obsessed by this for ten or more years. There is a whole list of reasons why we think it's a fraud."
Turner added that a print made from an Ansel Adams negative that was not printed by the photographer himself has no value and is not considered an authentic Ansel Adams work.
Art appraiser David Streets, however, defended the collection as the real McCoy on Tuesday, as media and visitors filled his gallery in Los Angeles for the unveiling of the 65 negatives.
“The Ansel Adams family, they really never participated in this,” Streets said, referencing the investigation into the negatives. “I think you’ve got a whole team of people over 10 years who have taken the time to really look at these in various ways to authenticate them.”
Streets said the negatives and prints of them will start to go on sale within the next six months, and he expects them to go for upwards of $200 million.
"When I heard that $200 million (figure), I got a little weak," Norsigian told a news conference Tuesday.
The negatives come to light
Norsigian said he bought the negatives because they contained views of Yosemite but never suspected they might be from Adams, whose images of the Sierra Nevada national park are world famous.
"It took a while, close to two years," before his suspicions were aroused, Norsigian said.
He stored the negatives in a bank vault and hired Peter three years ago to authenticate them.
Adams' early negatives were believed to have been lost in the 1937 fire and several of the garage sale negatives appeared to be charred around the edges, Peter said.
Experts surmise they survived the fire and Adams brought them with him when he went to Pasadena in 1941 to teach photography, Peter said.
Norsigian said the man who sold him the negatives said he bought them in the 1940s from a salvage warehouse in Los Angeles.
Streets said he conservatively estimated the negatives' value at $200 million, based on current sales of Adams' prints and the potential for selling reproductions.
Norsigian said he tried to contact the original purchaser after learning of the negatives' true value but has had no success.
"This has been such a long journey. I thought I'd never get to the end," Norsigian said. "It kind of proves a construction worker-painter can be right."
An exhibition of 17 of the photographs is planned for October at Fresno State University, and a documentary is planned on the negatives' sale and authentication, Peter said.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.