Art law USA

Legal row escalates over “lost” Adams photographs

Owner of unauthenticated negatives accuses University of Arizona of conspiracy

Ansel Adams in the Sierra, late 1930s by Rondal Partridge

CALIFORNIA. The legal fight over negatives alleged to be “lost” works by Ansel Adams, purportedly worth $200m, has taken a new turn. The owner of the negatives has added the University of Arizona as a defendant in a lawsuit against the Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust, alleging conspiracy and defamation.

Rick Norsigian, a wall-painter from California, stumbled across a cache of negatives in a Fresno garage sale a decade ago. The wrangling began last August when the trust sued Norsigian and his legal representative, PRS Media Partners, for trademark infringement after Norsigian advertised prints and posters for sale as “Ansel Adams’ Lost Negatives” on his website. Norsigian’s team has launched a counter-suit, alleging slander, defamation, unfair competition, trade libel, civil conspiracy and wrongful interference with a prospective economic advantage.

The Ansel Adams trust has held a monopoly on the reproduction and distribution rights of Adams’s images and the use of his name since the photographer’s death in 1984. The Center for Creative Photography (CCP) at the University of Arizona, which Adams helped establish in 1975, is a publicly funded

institute that houses the largest archive of Adams’s work in the country. An irrevocable provision provides 10% of the trust’s publishing royalties to the CCP, according to Photo District News.

William Turnage, managing director of the trust, is accused of defaming Norsigian and his team by calling them “crooks” and “con men” in comments reported on CNN. Turnage likened “Norsigian’s authentication ef­forts to the propaganda techniques used in Nazi Germany by Adolf Hitler,” say court papers. 

The conspiracy claim centres on emails Norsigian’s attorneys retrieved from the CCP after serving a public records request. These are being used as evidence that Turnage pressed the centre to support the trust in discrediting Norsigian’s claims that the negatives were by Adams. Turnage said it was “essential” for the centre to tell press that “the ‘lost’ negatives are not Adams negatives”. CCP director Katharine Martinez told Turnage she had decided to “remain silent about the claim”, in an email dated 15 August. Turnage called this a “cynical BS cop-out”.

Two weeks later, the centre issued a statement saying it had “no reason to believe” the negatives were by Adams, and that “we support the efforts of the Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust to protect its rights in this matter.” Turnage called the statement “anodyne”. The centre’s dean, Carla Stoffle, replied: “You got the best we can do and are going to do. Probably more than we should have.”

Norsigian’s team claims that this is evidence of “an ongoing conspiracy to interfere with the counter-plaintiff’s economic activities…and use a public entity as a proxy to serve a private business interests [sic]”, according to court papers. The centre declined to comment.

Norsigian’s team question whether the CCP officially provides authentication consultations. “They claim not to be in the authentication business,” said Norsigian’s attorney, Arnold Peter. “This runs contrary to the statement where they express their views about the negatives.”

Norsigian is keen to prove the negatives are by Adams. “I wish someone would hook me and Wild Bill [Turnage] up to a lie detector. I am telling the truth.” Asked why the negatives have not been forensically tested, Norsigian said: “It costs thousands of dollars. I can’t afford it. If someone else wants to do it on their dime, it would really be a pleasure.”

Bob Steiner of law firm Latham & Watkins, representing the trust, said: “We don’t think they will be able to authenticate the negatives. But the suit is not about whether they are authentic or not. We have a problem with them using the Ansel Adams name as if they are Ansel Adams-endorsed products. We need to protect his legacy.”

The cases are scheduled for hearing in May 2012.

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Comments

6 May 11
15:40 CET

NORM W, TEMECULA

You can bet that wherever a large amount of potential money is concerned, the buzzards will circle and fight over all of it. Good luck to the finders. "Finders keepers, losers weepers."

31 Mar 11
21:1 CET

MELINDA PILLSBURY-FOSTER, PASADENA

The settlement provides no answers to the questions raised regarding authorship of the negatives but has pointed up further issues. Matthew Adams attributed to me a statement diametrically opposed to numerous public comments. Adams claimed I had said the negatives could not have been authored by Arthur C. Pillsbury, my grandfather. I said I believed they were, and stated my reasons. Ansel Adams learned photography from my grandfather and worked for him for many years. Yet this is never mentioned in Adam's biography. When people lie and tell partial truths they frequently have motives. We are continuing to dig. Much is not available. More is coming. acpillsburyfoundation.org

17 Mar 11
15:36 CET

BERNARD KANE, PASADENA, CA

This case has since been settled. Norsigian has agreed to stop using Adams's name, likeness or trademark in the promotion of his found negatives, and the Adams Trust agreed to not interfere with his business or call him bad names. Otherwise, they agreed to disagree about the actual authorship of the negatives. http://amlawdaily.typepad.com/amlawdaily/2011/03/litdailyanseladams.html

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