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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.

By spring 2010, Peter felt he could present a case that the slides were the work of a young and still-unpolished Ansel Adams. He would posit that the negatives filled a missing link in the Adams timeline. It would be big news. Especially right after an Adams print, titled “Clearing Winter Storm, Yosemite National Park,” sold in June for a record $722,500 at a Sotheby’s auction.

Peter arranged for Beverly Hills gallery owner David Streets to lend his imprimatur to the proceedings. Streets would host the news conference at which they would announce that a set of Adams negatives that had vanished decades ago had been found. They’d issue a report bearing the alluring title “The Lost Negatives of Ansel Adams.”

After a decade of stop-and-start frustration for Norsigian, things were suddenly moving very fast. On July 26, the evening before the news conference, Peter took Norsigian to dinner to introduce him to Streets. Norsigian thought Streets seemed typical Beverly Hills, all smooth-talking and expensive clothes.

The next day, Peter and Norsigian stood before a pack of cameras and pointed out the similarities in two images from the Monterey coast: one made from Norsigian’s negative, the other from the Adams collection. Then Streets stepped in and told the assembled media that he believed the negatives to be worth $200 million. This was an astonishing number that Norsigian had heard for the first time only hours before. “I was just as dumbfounded as everyone else,” he says. Norsigian later understood the estimate as the sum of gross sales over a number of decades. “But right off the bat, everybody thinks, Oh, $200 million. These things, no, they’re not worth $200 million. At least in my estimation, they ain’t.”

But that gaudy figure was the exclamation point on cable news stations and in newspaper headlines around the globe.

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