Collector says negatives from yard sale are Ansel Adams'

Rick Norsigian, a goateed 64-year-old maintenance worker who has spent most of his life living in the same house on a quiet street in Fresno, has long had a penchant for collecting antiques. His hobby may have paid off in a big way.

Norsigian and his attorney announced Tuesday that 60 glass negatives Norsigian bought at a yard sale in Fresno a decade ago for $45 are the early works of famed photographer Ansel Adams. One appraiser said recently that because they were created between 1919 and the early 1930s -- a time before Adams became wildly popular -- they are worth more than their weight in gold: at least $200 million.

"When I found out about the value, that made my legs start to shake a little bit," Norsigian, a painter for the Fresno Unified School District, said by phone from his attorney's Los Angeles office Tuesday. He was conducting his 12th interview of the day and still had more scheduled. "I never thought in a million years that they would have a value that high."

But not everyone believes the fairy-tale story of an average Joe who stumbles across a long-lost treasure. Most notably, Matthew Adams, the photographer's grandson and president of the Ansel Adams Gallery, said Tuesday he has viewed the glass negatives and doesn't believe they are his grandfather's work.

"There's no way to prove absolutely one way or another," he said. "I call into serious question some of the evidence they've presented."

The $200 million estimate was made by David Streets, a Beverly Hills appraiser and art dealer. But Adams says that even if they were real, they would not be worth that much. He said prints of his grandfather's photos are much more valuable than the negatives, because they represent a photographer's finished work. If the appraisal for Norsigian's glass plates is accurate, then the 40,000 negatives stored in Adams' archives would be worth billions of dollars, Adams said.

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