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Wednesday, 28 July 2010


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IANAL, but if they really are Adams' negatives, he's probably violating several copyright laws by selling prints of them without permission of Adams' heirs...

I'm sure when someone buys my hard drive at a yard sale in 75 years it will be worth $200,000,000 too... in the new "End Times" currency.

Welcome back. I think the real lesson to be gleaned from all this is who will store (and keep restoring) your digital files for the very chance of being (re)discovered long after you've departed?

Nice to have you back, Mike.

Welcome back. How deep is the water in the basement?

Actually it is quite easy to pull this number out of one's sleeve, wherever said sleeve has been before. Assume there are 50 different plates (hey, it looks like it's a large box). Of each plate you sell 5000 prints at 500 USD and 50000 smaller ones at 30 USD and voilà, you just made 200 million!

You are right, published numbers are sometimes funny. How many people are supposed to be in the streets during a major marathon? "two million cheering spectators" according to the New York city marathon site. This means that on each side of the course 24 people are crammed on each metre! Even if not everybody is cheering at the same time this does not seem to be all that credible to me.

It wasn't bad. I'm due west of Milwaukee, and apparently most of the bad flooding was on the north side of the city near the lake. Very strange to get such heavy rains so late in the season...usually this happens in Spring and by July we're quite dry.

I still haven't found out our total rainfall here, but I'm assuming it's well under the worst totals for the broader area.


I do believe the news outlets were waiting for you to go on holiday to break this news piece.

I was hoping that maybe Olympus would release a new camera like last time you took some time off. Isn't that what happened?

In seeing Adam's early works, are you saying you saw his prints or his negatives?

Even if they are Adams' negatives, the only way they'd have that value is to project expected revenue from sale of prints or various rights over the next N years until copyright expires. Unfortunately, all Norsigian owns is the negatives. As I understand it, the Ansel Adams Pulblishing Rights Trust still manages the copyright for all Adams' work. All Norsigian can do with the images is look at them on a light box -- even the print shown in photos from from his press conference is likely a violation of copyright.

I was afraid someone would ask something like that. I would need to research the show and book to tell you the details, and I just don't have time at the moment. Not with 500 new emails awaiting my attention. My apologies.


I basically agree with your assessment, and about the monkey-butted-ness of the figures, but one thing you're not taking into account is the celebrity angle.

When you're talking about the value of these images, you're talking about the aesthetic value of the photographs, and whether they seem likely to be worth that $200 million. As early-career efforts, you're right, they're probably not as aesthetically valuable as his later, height-of-his-talent compositions.

But... here's the thing. The kind of people who like to bid on stuff like this are rarely doing it because they are impressed by the quality of the item. They're doing it to own a piece of history, a little chunk of celebrity, and, perhaps ironically, a bit of "inexperienced Ansel Adams" is probably worth more to them than his later work. It's like bidding on the childhood writings of someone like Abraham Lincoln; people do this not because they think they'll be profound or as good as his later rhetoric, but because it's a chance to touch the great before they became great, to own the potential before it is realized.

I mean, heck, people buy things like used gum chewed by Brittany Spears - just because we're talking about someone like Adams here doesn't mean similar impulses don't apply.

Even if they are Adams' plates they are worth exactly what someone will pay for them and nothing more. I can claim the tree in my backyard is worth a million but until someone hands me the money it's just a tree.

On a side note I would think half the thrill of owning an A.A. would be knowing who printed the negative. Would be much more impressive to me if Ansel himself did.

He already has 16 up on his website which he is offering prints from. The question of whether he is violating copyright is complicated by the Ansel Adams Trust and the family denying that the negatives are in fact by Ansel Adams. They are considering suing him for use of Ansel Adams name to sell something which they contend is not by Adams. I suspect that their suit would apply regardless of what any outside "expert" determined since the Trust has sole authority to sell reproductions of Adams work, alleged or otherwise.

The evidence that they are by Ansel seems rather thin to me. The photographs are good but don't appear to have Adams' unique vision. That they were found in LA and Ansel had taught classes in LA is tenuous at best. How many other photographers who have been in LA have photographed in Yosemite? The contention that the labeling is in Virginia's handwriting is shaky too. I'm old enough that I've labeled cut film negatives. It is done with India ink in the narrow margin that is left by the film holder, a confined space, and usually in block letters, not cursive. I have studied handwriting analysis and know that such "handwriting" is almost impossible conclusively verify.

Welcome back, Mike!

How about monkey-butt professions? We were puzzling over "evidence and burden of proof expert Manny Medrano" quoted in the CNN article. (A creepy quote about locking people up for life on less evidence. It turns out he's a former prosecutor, now TV reporter.)

Well, now the number is out there and the seller can have a sale with 50% off. $100 million for the lot - you save $100 million!

Read more about "the anchoring effect" here:

The news media concentrating on a dramatic headline (200 MEEEEEEE-LEEON DOLLAHS!) then completely failing to report on any of the important details?

Surely some mistake? ;-)

OK, I'll bite. What makes the $150–300 million cited for Trump's net worth any less of a (still overstated) monkey-butt number?


P.S. Thank GOODNESS you're back. It felt like crickets were chirping on the Internet for the last week...

Dear Folks,

AAPRT does not hold a copyright on "all Adams' work" as some believe. There is no such thing. You can copyright individual works (including specific compilations). You cannot blanket copyright an artist's life work.

So, *if* these are real AA's and they've really been stuck in a warehouse for half a century, they are very likely not under copyright.

Trademark has also been brought up in the press. AA's name is trademarked, but that doesn't prevent you from selling an Ansel Adams print you own, which you're advertising s an Adams print. It prevents misuse and misappropriation of the name. But *IF* these are real AA photographs, then Rick can sell them as AA photographs.

I ain't seen the photographs. I ain't seen the evidence. I'm not saying they are. Just saying that if they are, Rick is almost certainly not legally encumbered.

The AP article raised more questions for me than it answered-- were the handwriting experts experts in identification or forgery? Two different things, and very important in this case. Are *all* the photos similar to existing AA photos, or just some of them? It's less likely these are real if they all match known photos. Etc.

As an aside, Mike, I am disturbed whenever someone puts "experts" in quotes, as a backhanded way of dismissing them. Unless you actually know something one way or the other about those players, it's just ad hominem.

I'd be really pissed off if someone referred to me as a "expert" in that derogatory way.

Better to stick to what you know and opinions based on substance rather than data-free innuendo.

As for the $200M, yeah bogus. But if those 17 photos are real, then $20M's a real plausible number for their lifetime worth, and $3-5M's a sure thing. Which ain't chicken feed in the photo/art world!

pax / Ctein

'tis the Silly Season, idn't it?

This reminds me a lot of the recent New Yorker article and other stories about Peter Paul Biro and about the former trucker driver who bought a print at a flea market that Biro claims is a Jackson Pollack painting. Here's the New Yorker article link.

The fact that these are prints that supposedly burned in a fire is very fishy. I feel I don't need to point out the obvious but why would the prints have been removed prior to the fire and ended up in someone else's hands? It's amazing what people will believe when they really want to believe something.

The first four or five articles I read didn't identify any "experts," they just said "experts" or "a team of experts." So, I'm quoting the articles. I'm not using quote marks to dismiss those experts. I'm using quote marks to quote what the articles called them. And to indicate that it is the articles, not me, who are applying the word "experts" to whomever it might be.

In other words, I am using quotation marks to denote a quotation.

The fellow who did the appraising--the guy who came up with the $200 million figure--is, according to one Dierdre Woollard, writing on Luxist, "David W. Streets, the appraiser and art dealer who is hosting an unveiling of the photographs at his Beverly Hills, California, gallery." Draw your own conclusions.

If and when I read that any known PHOTOGRAPHIC expert is of the opinion that the work is Adams's, I might consider removing the quotes. I don't demand a majority of Adams scholars or the country's leading photography curators; but one or two would be nice. Until then, it's a quote from what others are saying.


I do not understand the laws here.

I assume these guys have these glass plate legally, otherwise as their possession of these plate is a very old story, they would be taken away long time ago. Remember the story about the iPhone 4.

If so, they should have the right to scan& print and/or dark room print it. What they can say is that it is from the Ansel Adams glass plate but obviously not printed by him.

Back to the question posed by Ctein, it may not be necessary to be printed by Ansel to be a great picture. Even though in this case, as someone has said somewhere some negatives of Ansel are not that great and only the Saint can print out such good pictures from those. Still, it might worth something. Not sure it can be in millions but should it be still legally something?

Regarding the nature of the experts who have opined thus far, here is what the Wall Street Journal article said:

"The experts included a photographer, an art adviser and handwriting analysts, though no Adams experts per se."

This group was assembled by Arnold Peter, the owner's lawyer. Why a handwriting expert? Well, Peter claims that s/he has established that the writing on the envelopes is that of Adams's wife, Virginia.

This is all new to me. Personally, I believe it's baloney but I have no emotional investment one way or the other. It's all good, clean family fun this summer. And I'm so sick of Elvis sightings and Area 51 stories it's a welcome change of nonsense.

Welcome back Mike


Everything that's old is new again. I had no idea this was a old story! Thanks for the clarifying background.

AAPRT does not hold a copyright on "all Adams' work" as some believe. There is no such thing. You can copyright individual works (including specific compilations). You cannot blanket copyright an artist's life work.

Adams had a copyright in each photo the moment it was created (unless it was a work for hire and he created the work for someone else pursuant to an agreement). You don't have to make an overt copyright claim -- the process is automatic. If those negatives were made by Adams, the estate likely owns the copyright in all of the images. The current copyright term for most works is life plus 70 years, so his estate will own the right to most of his work until the middle of this century. IOW, the owner can sell or display the plates themselves, but almost certainly cannot sell prints made from the plates without the estate's permission.

(However, it is possible that the copyright on some or all of these images has expired for one reason or another.)

Welcome back Mike! Did you get down to Chicago to see Hank Carter yet?

How many A.A. negatives are out there "in the wild" in people's personal collections? As far as I know, they are all in a managed collection.

200 million is a stretch in value, but if these ARE real, and can be grabbed for an art investment, they are worth far more than the $45 he spent on them.

Could forensic science help unravel this question of authenticity? No doubt Adams wore gloves while handling his plates, but…I'd still be curious to know if he left even one decent fingerprint behind.

Whatever is printed from these negatives will be new work, not vintage. The market price for a new Ansel Adams 8x10 digital print is $129. (see http://www.anseladams.com/Half_Dome_Blowing_Snow_p/1901011.htm) To get it on silver gelatin, printed by Alan Ross, will cost $225. These represent some of Adams' best work. Why would you pay more?

Whatever the merits of the situation, the Ansel Adam's side response drips with condescension. Was it really necessary to put quote marks around the name Norsigian? Its clear to me that Ansel Adam's is terrified of losing its franchise or having it seriously devalued by prints that cannot be authenticated or proven to be false. Hence the over-the-top response.

Dear Ken and James,

The AP article here said two handwriting experts and that the writing was on the negative envelopes, not in the margins of the negative.

Further emphasizes that we don't know enough about the nature of the evidence. It might be as James says, or there might be substantial enough writing fragments to be able to say they look like VA's with some expert assurance.

It would be nice if it were the latter. That would give us a good forensic path. Especially with the reported misspellings. Do the misspellings show a pattern or are they just occasional, random ones? We haven't been told. If they have a pattern and it doesn't match VA's other writings, then they've got a problem.

If they don't show a pattern, then either they don't really matter, or they're evidence of a forger who isn't a real expert at that. In which case (depending on the extent of the samples) a forgery expert can make a pretty good determination-- "painstaking" forgeries look like just that: microtremors, overstrokes, sketch marks, etc. A top-notch forger overcomes those pitfalls... but a top-notch forger won't get spellings wrong.

Think I'd trust that line of inquiry more than a technical/aesthetic evaluation of the photos themselves. But that's just me.

That the attorney assembled the group doesn't tell me anything one way or the other. If I were a responsible attorney, I'd establish a group that would tell me what was really going on, 'cause then I know what worth's being played with. If I were a sleazebag, I'd assemble a team that would tell the client what they wanted to hear and t'hell with the likely truth.

So, what kind of rep does Arnold Peter have? If it's good, have to assume this is a good-faith effort at trying to determine what's correct. If not, well... not so much.

Mike, sorry for picking on you for quoting someone else's editorial indiscretion. Didn't realize you were just quoting the quotes, as it were.

Like Ken, I've got no investment in it, and it's a lovely intellectual puzzle and diversion from gloomy mundanity. Me, I ain't even making a guess-- not after the Capa and Vishniak revelations of the past year. photo life is fulla surprises.

pax / Ctein

Just an order of magnitude more accurate, rather than accurate. You can do the research as easily as I. Start here:



P.S. Sometimes I feel like I am just a cricket myself, but thanks.

I think the "finding" is great story. I hope the guy makes a gazillion dollars!
I love shopping garage sales, and I always wonder when I will find some long lost treasure and buy it for pennies on the dollar.

..."three billion" people that supposedly watch the Academy Awards every year (if you look into it, the best real numbers for those two things are about $150–300 million and 80–100 million people worldwide, respectively)...

So you spent your vacation tracking down the actual number of viewers of the Academy Awards?

That's an easy one to research online. The Oscars isn't even the most-watched TV show in the U.S.--in 2010 viewership was up to 41.3 million, the best showing since 2005. That's less than half the viewers of an average Super Bowl. The "One billion" and "three billion" figures started in the mid '80s when someone figured out that the show was broadcast in so many countries that its theoretical audience COULD be as high as those numbers--if everyone watched. But of course that's not what actually happens.


tom m,
The "finding" part happened ten years ago, I believe.


There could be a couple of things at work here.
You know how easy it is when you've got an idea, to eagerly seize on any and every piece of information that seems to validate the point of view you've adopted, and to dismiss or somehow devalue anything that supports a contrary position?
And consider the amount of money and organisation that's obviously behind this now. And the fact that the promoter is a district school painter - is it his money or is someone else providing the funds and marketing?

And then this piece out of the newspaper report:-
Quote:For years, he tried to get them officially verified, taking them to experts at the Smithsonian Institution, the Getty Center and others, but no one would venture to authenticate them.
Three years ago, he met Beverly Hills entertainment lawyer Peter, who assembled a team of experts to review the negatives. Unquote:

An "entertainment lawyer" was able to assemble a team of "experts" who are able to do what the Smithsonian and others would not? Just run that past me again.

To me it's starting to sound like there's a mixture of obsession and contingency funding by a group of investors lined up by the "entertainment lawyer" who have found some less recognised but willing experts to provide some basis of authenticity. It even makes me wonder if the experts aren't also in on the contingency arrangement. Like, if this thing flies you'll each get a percentage but if it falls over then you'll get travel expenses only. (Or something like that arrangement).

The copyright situation as I understand it is not as it's outlined by a couple of people here.

If these are in fact negatives of Ansel Adams images, taken before 1978, and they have not previously been published, then I think they're in copyright now, and that copyright would be held by whoever got the general assignment of Adams' copyrights. The 1978 law specifically dealt with unpublished work as of the effective date -- it brought it into copyright under the new terms. (The fact that Adams was alive then is also key.) And I believe a will or contract giving "all his copyrights" or any other such general language would be effective on these.

If any of them were published when they were new, that one may well be in the public domain today -- if the copyright wasn't renewed after the first term, it would be. Publication started the clock under the old (pre-Berne) copyright law, and if the work was out of copyright before the new law came in, then it's now public domain.

I happen across a wonderful chronological exhibit of Adam's prints from about 1920 to 1950. It was in Hot Springs, Arkansas' Contemporary Art Museum.

As I noted, it was presented in chronological order and it added a lot of credence in my mind to the 10 year "rule" of how long it takes to master something, just about anything.

The early works, first 10-12 years, are not so great. Blacks are blocked up in some prints, flat in others. But then you get to 1932 or 3 and BOOM, Half-dome and it's like a different photographer/printer has arrived. The Adams we all think of is there.

So, even if this guy has a bunch of early work by Adams, I don't think they are worth 2 million let alone 200 millon. The early work was just not that good when compared to his best.



There's an excellent book by Barbara somebody called The Meme Machine, in which she examines the factors that decide whether an idea lasts and spreads or not. Accuracy is not high among them.

Another fascinating aspect of this story for me is about the media. Earlier reports of this story, before the team released its conclusion that the plates are AA's, talked about how many experts concluded that the plates were not AA's work, and how the finder had spent lots of money and experienced other hardships as a result of his quest.

Now the same outlets release this story as if it had never been discussed before, and write about the conclusions of this team as if they were the last word on the subject. It seems as if there has been a failure of the journalistic process, perhaps the result of cutbacks, layoffs, etc. resulting in a loss of institutional memory and resources to actually follow a story instead of regurgitating press releases. For example, what does AA's family say?

Whether or not these are AA's plates, it seems that the finder's team's word is not the last word.

Interesting coincidence - Ovie Carter's photo kit just sold on eBay last week.


For those cutting and pasting the name into Google, save yourself the trouble. He is a Pulitzer-winning Chicago photojournalist who is referenced and pictured in the above article regarding Howard Simmons.

Dear RP,

That's for work created post-1978 Copyright Act or that was under registered copyright when the act passed. The law was very, very different before then. If you didn't register and maintain a copyright, you lost it-- the work went into public domain.

That's one reason you get to see "It's A Wonderful Life" every year on local TV stations. Neither Capra nor the studio maintained the copyright on it-- it's in the public domain.

Whatever this work really is, if it came from a salvage warehouse in the 1940's and just sat in someone's garage for half a century, it ain't protected.

Doesn't mean it's worth anything, tho'...

pax / Ctein

P.S. In my first post, I miswrote-- there are 65 negatives not 17. Point doesn't change, but I don't want to be spreading disinformation.

Not sure if this will make it to the national media by the morning, but KTVU TV in San Francisco led their news Wednesday night with this story. I hope my niece still has my photos in 87 years.



I can only echo JonA's comment on the eery coincidence with the New Yorker article on 'fingerprint expert' Peter Paul Biro (quotation marks purposedly added).

Before reading the article, though, it is strongly recommended to watch the documentary mentionned in the article 'Who the #$&% Is Jackson Pollock?'
(Welcome back, Mike)


Cannot comment on whether the photos are really AA's, but here's an old and gold quote:

85.6% of numbers on the Internet are pulled out of thin air.

Unfortunately, it very often applies to newspapers, too. :-/


It's a Wonderful Life is actually protected by copyright law now. It's considered a derivative work of a published story and no longer is aired.

If the work was never published then the copyright would expire 70 years after the death of the author or 2054.


If the story is true that these were shown to the public back in the 30s, then it should meet the publish requirement and Ctein would be right, these images are in the public domain.

Even if these image's copyright were owned by Adams. Mr. Norsigian can still sell these plates because of the first sale doctrine.

but if they really are Adams' negatives, he's probably violating several copyright laws by selling prints of them without permission of Adams' heirs...

Except that the Adams estate have claimed that they are not Adams' negatives. He's obviously violating someone's copyright... but he will not have a problem unless the actual copyright holder turns up with proof.

That's for work created post-1978 Copyright Act or that was under registered copyright when the act passed. The law was very, very different before then. If you didn't register and maintain a copyright, you lost it-- the work went into public domain.

That's not entirely accurate. David Dyer-Bennet did a good job of describing the situation. If the works were published before 1978 and the copyright wasn't renewed, they might be in the public domain. But if the photos weren't published, they are covered by the current law and are probably still protected.

If you already haven't read it, there is a good article in the July 12, 2010, issue of The New Yorker titled "The Mark of a Masterpiece". It's about how some people value artwork.

Ansel Adams had to be the most anal retentive photographer/artist in the history of the world. The inventor and writer of books about the Zone system was nothing if not systematic. That there would be unaccounted for AA plates beggars belief. This is a fraud even without seeing them unless there is a hell of a story explaining it that can be verified six ways to Sunday.

Ctein: "If you didn't register and maintain a copyright, you lost it" -- true for published work. (pre-1978, USA). Not true for unpublished work, as I understand it. And the 1978 law had specific provisions for handling existing unpublished work, which is that it was protected from when the law took effect. I think these negs were existing unpublished work in 1978, so whoever took them had copyright under the 1978 law.

(Hmmm; not sure how it worked if the artist was dead in 1978. But Adams was alive then, so that doesn't change the interesting case here, where they are actually his work.)

And then, maybe the negatives are by "uncle Earl": http://www.foxreno.com/news/24432262/detail.html

Just a note about Howard Simmons. Howard is by far the nicest man I've had the pleasure of meeting. I've also had the pleasure of living two doors from him and his lovely wife Marva for the past 14 years. He's been a great help and inspiration to me. You go, Howard.

Dear DDB, Sam and RP,

Umm, absolutely right. I read the implication in the article that these had been "published" as the term is used in copyright, but on rereading it, this is not a fact entirely in evidence. I still believe it to be true, but I definitely over-read, and I should have added that caveat.

Sam, my source for the info about "It's a Wonderful Life" was the first edition of Lutzker's excellent book on copyrights and trademarks, which I have nearly memorized. Up until now I've always felt confident using it as a source of authority. Your correction sent me checking, and whaddayaknow? That same tidbit does *NOT* appear in the 2nd edition! Either the status changed between the two writings or Lutzker had it wrong in the 1st edition and corrected in the the second.

How unprecedented! I mean, have you ever, ever heard of another case of information changing in a later edition of a book? Really! I assure you I've never done such a thing [tfic].

This'll teach me to check most current references, he said embarrassedly.

The bit about pulling IAWL back under the umbrella by dint of it being "derivative work" is a very cute hack. I like it. Would you happen to know when that determination was made?

pax / Ctein
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com


It appears that the status changed in 1993/1994.


Dear Sam,

Thanks, very interesting!

That predates Lutzker's book by several years, so the most likely scenario is the classic one where you write a book that includes knowledge you've known for years and years and some reader writes in to tell you it recently changed. Insert sound of hand smacking forehead there.

pax / Ctein

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