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Picture Perfect Purchase
July 27, 2010 6:28 PM   Subscribe

A collection of glass-plate negatives purchased for $45 at a garage sale a decade ago has been authenticated as lost early work of Ansel Adams, potentially worth $200 million.
posted by Mr. Anthropomorphism (50 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

 
Clearly I'm going to the wrong garage sales.
posted by pjern at 6:43 PM on July 27, 2010 [13 favorites]


I need to either start going to more garage sales or start burgling more homes.
posted by stavrogin at 6:44 PM on July 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


Yeah, but you guys have no idea how much fun I had with that $45! Those were 1999 dollars! Party!
posted by cjorgensen at 6:47 PM on July 27, 2010 [5 favorites]


This guy apparently spent over a decade trying to get this authenticated, eventually to be rewarded with an average annual (estimated) income of $20 million. I wonder how many people told him to give up while he was working on it, or how sick of his quest his friends became. Or maybe everyone was very supportive? Regardless I bet there's a big party on now.
posted by doteatop at 6:47 PM on July 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


It could be a while before he sees the profits from the sale of prints from the negatives

This. Possession of the negatives does not give possession of copyright. He can sell those objects, but without making a deal with the rights holders, he has no more than that ... But yes, what a fantabulous story!
posted by woodblock100 at 6:49 PM on July 27, 2010


I figured it was the plates that Ansel donated as part of the glass recycling for the war effort that somehow got saved instead.
posted by MikeWarot at 6:49 PM on July 27, 2010


He bickered with the seller, finally negotiating down from $70 to $45 for the boxes. The owner said he bought them in the 1940s at a warehouse salvage in Los Angeles. He bickered the price down from $70 to $45.

Oh, CNN. Your editorial eye astounds.
posted by missmary6 at 6:49 PM on July 27, 2010 [19 favorites]


Sweet merciful fuck. Awesome.
posted by notsnot at 6:50 PM on July 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


God, I would hate to be the guy who had held on to these plates since the late '40s only to sell them some 50 years later at a garage sale for half the original $70 asking price.

Realistically, if these sold at Sotheby's for $200 million, how much would he be expected to have after the auction house's cut and all taxes have been paid?
posted by Auden at 6:50 PM on July 27, 2010


To be sure, Adams's heirs don't believe the claims, nor did experts at major institutions such as the Smithsonian venture their opinions.
posted by dhartung at 6:56 PM on July 27, 2010 [3 favorites]


Realistically, if these sold at Sotheby's for $200 million, how much would he be expected to have after the auction house's cut and all taxes have been paid? -- Oh, about $45.
posted by crunchland at 6:57 PM on July 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


Somewhat related story
posted by birdherder at 6:58 PM on July 27, 2010


Copyright is a fickle bitch. It starts once the image is placed in a fixed medium. I would say these slides count. Most likely the images are in the public domain, but just like the Mona Lisa specific images of that are still copyrightable. I don't think this is as clear cut as it would seem.

I'd have to know dates of the plates, whether the images appeared anywhere, etc. before I'd even try to guess who hold the copyright, but I'd probably bank on this guy if I had to make a guess at this point.
posted by cjorgensen at 6:59 PM on July 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


Possession of the negatives does not give possession of copyright.

Much of Ansel Adams work has already entered the public domain. Depending on when these plates were created it is very likely that the rights on these have also entered the public domain. Given that they are described as from early in his career and combined with the appraisal it sounds likely that the immediate actors have already come to that conclusion.
posted by Babblesort at 7:00 PM on July 27, 2010


From the story about the naysayers dhartung linked to above:

"Turnage called that figure ridiculous because the value of Adams' work is in his darkroom hand-crafting of the prints, and said the negatives are next to worthless."

Even with Adams being a master at darkroom printing techniques, I can't imagine his negative being "worthless." I hope they're real because I love stories about people finding shit like this at garage sales.
posted by marxchivist at 7:01 PM on July 27, 2010


Not exactly on the same level, but I saw a pair of intriguing little sketches in a thrift shop last week and my spidey senses started to tingle. It was "HALF OFF ALL ART!!" day too, and there were 2 of the sketches, so I bought them both. The price tags said $2.00 so I got both for $2.00. The two old ladies behind the counter spent 5 minutes arguing whether or not the sketches were art, which I found hilarious.

I googled the artist's name and her pieces are going for between 2 and 5 thousand each.

I like that thrift shop.
posted by iconomy at 7:06 PM on July 27, 2010 [20 favorites]


What if they'd been sketches of a video game. Is it still art then?

Please ignore me. I couldn't possibly survive another round of the what is art game.
posted by Babblesort at 7:14 PM on July 27, 2010 [3 favorites]


iconomy, I can more than double your money, I have a fin right here with your name on it. Memail me.
posted by maxwelton at 7:14 PM on July 27, 2010


Also, this stuff doesn't happen to me. If I'm lucky I'll find a copy of a "declaration of co-dependence" tucked behind my garage-sale velvet clown painting.
posted by maxwelton at 7:17 PM on July 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


just like the Mona Lisa specific images of that are still copyrightable

As long as Bridgeman v. Corel stands, if they are faithful photograph reproductions of the public domain original, they are also in the public domain.
posted by zsazsa at 7:19 PM on July 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


photographic
posted by zsazsa at 7:19 PM on July 27, 2010


This is why I hoard everything instead of holding garage sales - I can never tell whether that candlestick shaped like an aboriginal with a spear & the slogan "Souvenir of Mudgereeba" isn't actually a lost early work of some now-famous artist.
posted by UbuRoivas at 7:58 PM on July 27, 2010


"But who owns it?"
"If it is worth $200 million, it will be owned by assholes."
posted by ovvl at 8:06 PM on July 27, 2010 [7 favorites]


Yeah, this guy's story doesn't add up. He tried for years to get the photos authenticated and nobody would do it, until he met an entertainment lawyer who managed to get a few experts to agree with him.

Because when you have artworks that need to be verified, the place to go is an entertainment lawyer. Presumably a lawyer who will take a cut of any profits.

The Ansel family doesn't buy that the negs are real, and wants to carbon date them to see if the charred edges match the date of the Ansel house fire, but the owner refuses. Why would he refuse if he believes they're authentic? I think it's a scam.
posted by Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese at 8:42 PM on July 27, 2010


This part:

"'I have sent people to prison for the rest of their lives for far less evidence than I have seen in this case,' said evidence and burden of proof expert Manny Medrano, who was hired by Norsigian to help authenticate them."

makes me hope they're the real deal.
posted by The Hamms Bear at 9:06 PM on July 27, 2010


Forgive my ignorance, but wouldn't carbon dating only date something to the nearest century, or perhaps millennium?
posted by yhbc at 9:18 PM on July 27, 2010 [4 favorites]


I think they can generally get pretty damn precise with Carbon dating. The half life, which I don't recall exactly at the moment, is, I think, under 6k years.
posted by resiny at 9:23 PM on July 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


How might
if they are faithful photographic reproductions of the public domain original, they are also in the public domain
be affected by
the value of Adams' work is in his darkroom hand-crafting of the prints
?
posted by finite at 9:44 PM on July 27, 2010


Party? Realistically, anyone nerdy enough to recognise this and then spend ten years trying to get it authenticated, instead of just selling them for $100 and spending the $55 on booze is probably not the kind of person with whom... that sentence got away from me a bit there, but basically: antique nerds aren't fun.
posted by doublehappy at 9:57 PM on July 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


"'I have sent people to prison for the rest of their lives for far less evidence than I have seen in this case,' said evidence and burden of proof expert Manny Medrano, who was hired by Norsigian to help authenticate them."

Would that be Manny Medrano the "expert in leadership, team building, workplace diversity, motivating individual performance and overcoming adversity", or Manny Medrano the reporter for KTLA News in Los Angeles?

Oh, wait. They're the same guy.

Who, as a Harvard Law graduate, should know that the burden of proof for a criminal trial is "beyond reasonable doubt".

In the art world, where forgery is always a risk & therefore provenance is almost everything, I am not sure that "beyond reasonable doubt" is certain enough for any serious investor to fork out millions for these. Two possible sources of reasonable doubt are obviously 1) that they're forgeries or 2) that they were taken by somebody else.

In contrast, all I'm seeing in favour of the negatives being Adams' looks to me like a load of confirmation bias: similar locations (as if Yosemite is somehow obscure), similar era, possible handwriting match to somebody known to Adams (just go through 'em all, eventually you'll find one close enough), occasional fire damage, and the fact that Adams had been in California at some point in his life.
posted by UbuRoivas at 12:01 AM on July 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


Ah shucks. I went to a garage sale and all I ended up buying was a cheap garage.
posted by MuffinMan at 2:30 AM on July 28, 2010


I think the significant thing about the copyright status is whether or not they were published. From Wikipedia,

The claim that 'pre-1923 works are in the public domain' is correct only for published works; unpublished works are under federal copyright for at least the life of the author plus 70 years.

I would assume that this also applies if they were created in the late twenties or thirties and unpublished too, though I could be wrong; but if it applies that puts them under copyright until 2054, unfortunately.
posted by XMLicious at 4:43 AM on July 28, 2010


That's why I said above I;d need to know if photos had ever been made from these slides before I would even guess as to their copyright status. You have to go under copyright at the time of publication. I forget when the life +70 came about, but I am guessing these were created before that.

Of course once you involve lawyers the facts don't actually matter.
posted by cjorgensen at 5:06 AM on July 28, 2010


Carbon dating is not particularly accurate on modern samples because of fluctuations in the amount of 14C since industrialization. In any case, at its best carbon dating is accurate only to +/- 50 years it's useful for determining if a work dates to the 14th century or to antiquity.

I'm not a specialist, but I do work in an art museum, and my understanding is that chemical analysis for this sort of thing is notoriously inconclusive. Usually one looks for materials or processes that were not available to an artist to prove a forgery, but that sort of thing only works if you have a solid catalog of media and techniques.
posted by Trace McJoy at 7:32 AM on July 28, 2010


Realistically, if these sold at Sotheby's for $200 million, how much would he be expected to have after the auction house's cut and all taxes have been paid?

Christie's and Sotheby's take 20% from the Seller plus "agreed upon expenses" which may include insurance. On a hammer price of $200 million then, approximately $160 million. How much the Seller would realize after taxes, I don't know.
posted by mlis at 7:34 AM on July 28, 2010


Okay, I can't be the only person who read this and thought of the recent New Yorker piece about the difficulty of authenticating works of art, right? If you haven't read it yet it's worth doing so. Now I read things like:
Experts, including a former FBI agent and a U.S. attorney, "came to the conclusion that, based on the evidence which was overwhelming, that no reasonable person would have any doubt that these, in fact, were the long-lost images of Ansel Adams," Arnold said.
and instead of being cheered by a little-man-made-rich-by-stroke-of-luck story, I think, "what in the hell makes a former FBI agent and U.S. attorney qualified to make that determination? why are there no art historians or ansel adams experts quoted in this story? hmm."
posted by iminurmefi at 9:10 AM on July 28, 2010


Obviously, because art historians and Ansel Adams experts are all unreasonable people.
posted by finite at 10:54 AM on July 28, 2010


He has the whiff of legitimacy, which means he can start grinding out t-shirts and college posters. And really, isn't that what matters?
posted by mecran01 at 11:10 AM on July 28, 2010


Is there a link to all of the pictures somewhere? I only saw 7 in CNN's gallery.

I've gone backpacking quite a bit in Yosemite and the Sierras and I've taken a lot of the same shots as Adams did. Since I have no skill whatsoever and I use a point-and-shoot digital camera, comparing my shots to his is always entertainingly humbling.
posted by Thoughtcrime at 11:23 AM on July 28, 2010


It isn't clear they are authentic. The Adams family says not so.
posted by A189Nut at 2:27 PM on July 28, 2010


A little sorta-derail on carbon dating: now it can be done by counting the number of atoms of each carbon isotope in a sample by accelerator mass spectrometry, rather than measuring the amount of radioactivity from 14C. The mass spec method gives a more accurate estimation of age and can be used on samples which are much newer.

The interesting thing is that the amount of 14C in the atmosphere spiked around 1965 due to atomic weapons testing (see second graph here), and recent samples (and people and animals) have more 14C in them than pre-WWII stuff.

So I'm guessing that the interest in carbon-dating these negatives is that if these negatives went through a fire in 1937, there should be less 14C in the ashes and soot stuck on them than if the fire was in 1970 or so. Of course, current atmospheric levels of 14C are almost back to their pre-WWII baseline, so if they were burned 4 years ago, the test might be inconclusive.

If you're interested, there's more here on accelerator mass spec for 14C at Lawrence Livermore National Labs. zippy and I took a neato tour of the place a few weeks ago - total geek nirvana, and I got a free refrigerator magnet too!
posted by Quietgal at 2:37 PM on July 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


From an LA Times Article:

William Turnage, who was Adams' business manager until his death in 1984 and remains managing trustee in charge of administering the rights to publish or reproduce Adams' work...dismiss[es] the conclusions .

"I really resent people who have gone out and hired some so-called experts. I give them no credence in terms of their knowledge of Ansel's work," Turnage said. "They're doing this for only one thing, to make money. I feel sad for people who might be gulled into buying these things we think are fakes."

and

"If they were any good, he would have printed them," Turnage said. "He printed everything that he felt was good. And [prints from Adams' hand] look completely different from what anybody they've hired to stamp out prints would make."

and

There's no way on God's green earth that Ansel would have left 65 negatives sitting somewhere," then lose track of them, Turnage said. "He treated the negatives as if they were his children," going so far as to house them in a concrete bunker built into a hillside behind his home in Carmel — where nobody could venture unless accompanied by the photographer. Adams left all 44,000 of his negatives to the Center for Creative Photography, which he helped establish at the University of Arizona in Tucson, Turnage said.
posted by Rashomon at 4:48 PM on July 28, 2010


Damn it, iconomy -- you've topped my thrift store score of last week. Mom found a few books, called me, I came running and pow! scores of out-of-print knitting books that fetch $200-700 apiece...all for $1.50 each. (Including one I have lusted after for years).

Mom's one of Those People who finds things that are worth gobs of money. I'm calling in my antique-expert friends when she goes because I have NO IDEA what's worth $5000 and what's worth 50 cents...it's hard to tell, she's got so much good stuff packed away.
posted by bitter-girl.com at 4:55 PM on July 28, 2010


Okay, I can't be the only person who read this and thought of the recent New Yorker piece about the difficulty of authenticating works of art, right? If you haven't read it yet it's worth doing so.

Now that was a great read. Thanks, iminurmefi.
posted by pmurray63 at 9:59 PM on July 28, 2010


It looks like these photos are not Ansel Adams, but instead taken by a man named Earl Brooks from Fresno.

PetaPixel even has a little overlapped comparison between a known-Brooks photo and one of the possible Adams photos that's been released, showing that it was almost surely taken during the same session.

KTVU got the story a woman noticed the photos looked a lot like her uncle's.
posted by skynxnex at 2:00 PM on July 29, 2010 [3 favorites]


It isn't clear they are authentic. The Adams family says not so.

What? That sounds altogether ooky.

snap snap
posted by Sutekh at 2:52 PM on July 29, 2010


It looks like these photos are not Ansel Adams, but instead taken by a man named Earl Brooks from Fresno.

That PetaPixel comparison looks very compelling.

So, it took about one entire day, but it looks like we've found our reasonable doubt.
posted by UbuRoivas at 6:37 PM on July 29, 2010


So how much does an authentic Uncle Earl go for these days?
posted by cjorgensen at 8:45 PM on July 29, 2010


$20, same as in town.
posted by UbuRoivas at 7:49 AM on July 30, 2010


LA Times story on Uncle Earl's photographs.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 3:20 PM on August 8, 2010


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