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Ansel Adams Trust Files Suit

Lone Pine On Sentinel Dome, Yosemite, 1923
Lone Pine On Sentinel Dome, Yosemite, 1923
Trademark violations alleged in case of disputed negatives

The legal battle over the box of photo negatives Rick Norsigian bought at a Fresno garage sale 10 years ago has begun.

On Monday, the Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust, led by managing trustee William Turnage, filed a civil suit in federal court in San Francisco alleging multiple trademark violations against Norsigian and PRS Media Partners, a consulting firm run by attorney Arnold Peter. 

Norsigian and Peter made international news after declaring in a press conference on July 27 that they had proved Ansel Adams made the 65 negatives, which they dubbed "the lost negatives." That claim has since been heavily disputed by the Adams family and Trust. An Oakland woman, Marian Walton, has also complicated the authentication effort by introducing the world to her uncle, Earl Brooks, whose photos of Yosemite very closely resemble the Norsigian negatives.

The lawsuit aims to halt the sale of the Norsigian prints. Since announcing that they had proved that Adams took the negatives, Norsigian and Peter have been selling prints online and through an art gallery run by Beverly Hills dealer David W. Streets. As previously reported by The Bay Citizen, Streets' credibility has been called into question due to his fraud convictions in Louisiana and Kentucky. Streets has put the value of the negatives at $200 million.

Marian Walton in her home in Oakland on Aug. 10, 2010
Adithya Sambamurthy/The Bay Citizen
Marian Walton in her home in Oakland on Aug. 10, 2010
Adithya Sambamurthy/The Bay Citizen

The Adams Trust has held fast to its conviction that Adams was not the photographer, and engaged in an often heated public exchange with the Norsigian team. "Our primary goal is to close them down," Turnage said, "as they are illegally and illegitimately using Ansel's name."

While no amount of damages is directly named in the written complaint, the Trust does ask for several forms of restitution, including attorney's fees and profits made from the sale of the prints. The 28-page complaint also states that the Norsigian team has "acted knowingly, willfully and with malice" in its representation of the prints as Adams originals.

It is worth noting, too, that the Trust is suing for trademark, not copyright, infringement, and therefore the provenance of the negatives is not central to the Trust's complaint. According to Trust attorney Bob Steinberg, the Trust's trademark would be infringed whether or not Adams was the originator of the negatives.

"We contend that these are not made by Ansel Adams. Even if they were, they are negatives, and [Norsigian] would not have the right to use [Adams'] name on any of the prints," Steinberg said.

In a written statement, Peter said that he was "disappointed" by the legal development. "It is our position that this lawsuit is without merit and designed to harass Mr. Norsigian and to silence this debate,” he stated.

The David W. Streets gallery in Beverly Hills
The New York Times/Monica Almeida
The David W. Streets gallery in Beverly Hills
The New York Times/Monica Almeida

The Norsigian team also sent out a press release earlier Monday, restating its desire to have an independent panel of experts examine the negatives and negative sleeves. The team also asked that the Center for Creative Photography, which houses the Adams archive, furnish originals for comparison: "Team Norsigian is prepared to work together with multiple experts and institutions, including the CCP."

But fallout from revelations about Streets — and from Uncle Earl's photos — continues to mount for the Norsigian group. On Friday, Fresno State University announced that it was canceling a show of the prints that Peter, a Fresno State alumn, had previously announced. This leaves one current venue for the Norsigian negatives: the David W. Streets gallery, which promises a VIP red-carpet party on Sept. 23 with an invitation-only showing on Sept. 24 and a one-day ticketed viewing on Sept. 25. Prints remain on sale online, at least for now.

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