Arts & Entertainment

$45 yard sale purchase turns out to be photographic treasure from Ansel Adams

Ansel Adams photo being exhibited from yard sale discovery
Ansel Adams photo being exhibited from yard sale discovery
Corey Moore/KPCC

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A Fresno man can expect to field plenty of bids from museums and art collectors. He owns glass negatives created by iconic photographer Ansel Adams. They'll command a whole lot more than they sold for 10 years ago.

An "I brake for yard sales" bumper sticker would be right at home on Rick Norsigian's car. The painter for the Fresno Unified School District offered $45 for a couple of boxes full of glass photographic plates.

He left figuring he'd scored a pretty good deal by talking the seller down from $75. But the real deal came into focus later.

Inside those boxes were dozens of negatives nature photographer Ansel Adams shot early in the last century. Historians thought a fire in Adams' studio more than six decades ago had destroyed them all. But they were wrong. Now appraisers predict that the 65 negatives could sell for close to $200 million.

At an exhibit of the photos in Beverly Hills, Norsigian said that when he first bought the negatives, he and friends joked that they could belong to Ansel Adams. Then Norsigian got serious, and started to conduct his own research.

"I went to Yosemite and talked to Glenn Crosby, he runs the Ansel Adams gallery in Yosemite," recalls Norsigian. "And so after showing him and telling him my story, he asked me if I wanted to get in contact with the family and I go, 'Well if you think so...' and he goes, 'If I were you, I would.''"

Norsigian said that communicating with Adams' family did help. Eventually experts got involved. They concluded what Norsigian vowed he'd already known – that the glass negatives were authentic.

Some of the images depict coastal Carmel or San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf. Even if they're not all about nature, historians say they're classic Ansel Adams.

Photo enthusiasts suggest that Adams probably carried these glass negatives to show to students in his Pasadena photography class. That may have saved them from the fire in his studio. Rick Norsigian revealed that the person he bought the negatives from at the yard sale picked them up from an L.A. warehouse sale in the 1940s.

How the fragile negatives may have traveled from Pasadena to Los Angeles is anyone's guess. But Norsigian, now in his 60s, will decide where they go next. Though he has no immediate plans to sell to museums or private collectors, he said he may eventually.