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Ansel Adams’s Lost Photos?

David Howard investigates the mystery of 61 black-and-white negatives that are stirring up a hornet's nest of accusations, threats, and lawsuits.

At 65, Norsigian wears round glasses and exhibits plainspoken mannerisms that call to mind a down-home granddad. But he is a tugboat of a man, all burly neck and shoulders, with a long white goatee and thinning dark hair combed straight back—the effect is more Harley Davidson than country-club golf cart. I meet him on a warm, early-fall evening, and he is in bare feet and shorts. To some, his collecting might sound obsessive. But though the world of old things is filled with fast-talkers and opportunists, that’s not Norsigian. He’s a romantic—in it for love, not money. “It keeps my *** out of trouble,” he says in his country drawl. He laughs, then pauses to absorb the tart irony of the cliché: We both know the opposite is actually true. “Well, it gets me in trouble with the old lady,” he says, backtracking. “She can’t stand it. Poor woman.”

And so it was in spring 2000 that, once again testing the tensile strength of his marital bonds, he decided to visit a Fresno garage sale. What would it hurt to acquire one more barber chair? He was disappointed to find the piece was broken beyond his ability to repair it. But he’d already driven over, so he started poking around. Eventually his eye landed on a small, dusty crate. He spotted “something kind of shining from the top of it,” so he walked closer and saw a bunch of envelopes inside. He pulled one out and turned it upside down, and a large glass negative slid out.

He’d never encountered such a thing before. He rotated the plate in his hand: It had to be more than half a foot tall and wide. How anyone would even create that kind of negative, he couldn’t guess. But when he held it up, he saw a familiar sight. “Wow, that’s Yosemite Falls,” he said to himself. “That’s pretty cool.” He pulled out another and again recognized an image of Yosemite National Park, the treasure full of lush meadows, roiling waterfalls, and soaring granite peaks only a few hours north of Fresno. The paper sleeves holding the envelopes were numbered—the digits were in the 8,000 range—as if part of a collection. He pulled a few more out, and there were more scenes that looked interesting and excited the part of him that is drawn to artifacts. So he asked Irving Schwartz, the elderly gentleman running the garage sale, how much?

Schwartz said $70 for the box of 61. Norsigian haggled the price down to $45. Then he brought the crate home and slid it under his beloved 1909 pool table in the room where he used to shoot pool until he filled it up with so much stuff that no one had the space to wield a cue anymore. When relatives and friends came over, he’d pull the box out and show them: Aren’t these cool?

Everyone agreed they were very cool, and they began to joke with him: Those look like they could have been made by Ansel Adams. Norsigian laughed along—Yeah, sure, Ansel’s stuff is really going to show up at a garage sale—and slid them back under the table. But people kept needling him, and after a few more months, Norsigian began to wonder. It seemed ludicrous, really. But a voice in his head kept asking: What if?

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