A handful of experts are trying to prove what Rick Norsigian has suspected for years: that his garage-sale find of 60 glass photo negatives are the early works of famed California photographer Ansel Adams.
Norsigian, a 63-year-old antiques collector who works in the maintenance department of the Fresno Unified School District, bought the negatives for $45 in the spring of 2000. But they may be worth millions.
Some photography and restoration experts believe that the negatives may be Adams' early work -- pictures taken in the 1920s and early 1930s, before Adams became wildly popular.
On Thursday, the experts milled about in a conference room at a Clovis hotel, pointing to evidence that they say proves the negatives are the work of one of California's foremost nature photographers.
For example, they said, the negatives were found in manila envelopes with notes that a handwriting expert has identified as written by Virginia Adams, Ansel Adams' wife. Most of the photos were of nature scenes in Yosemite National Park and San Francisco -- two places that were often the subject of Ansel Adams' photographs.
The experts were hired by a Los Angeles law firm that has been working closely with Norsigian for three years.
The event Thursday was meant to drum up publicity for the photos and help set the stage for a possible exhibition of the glass negatives in Fresno next year.
Patrick Alt, a photographer from Culver City and one of the experts, said he believes the glass plates were shot by Adams, because "there was no one else other than Ansel in that time period doing this quality of work."
But not everyone is convinced. Most notably, Matthew Adams, the photographer's grandson and president of the Ansel Adams Gallery, said Thursday that there's "no absolute proof as to who did take them."
In a separate statement he added: "Mr. Norsigian has been claiming these negatives were made by Ansel Adams for many years. I am unaware of anyone knowledgeable agreeing with him."
Norsigian has had trouble tracking down how the negatives wound up in Fresno. He said that the person who sold the glass plates to him at the garage sale in Fresno told him that they had been stored in an abandoned Los Angeles warehouse.
Norsigian has lost contact with that person, however, and he said he hasn't had any success trying to figure out how the box of negatives got to the warehouse.
One theory, however, is that they were stored there in the early 1940s while Adams taught in Los Angeles.
Some of the negatives appear to have been singed by fire -- evidence that they may have been part of the Adams' collection damaged by a 1937 fire that destroyed much of his work, Norsigian said.
Despite skepticism from Adams' family, he said he believes "without a doubt" that they are the work of Adams. Arnold Peter, an attorney with a Los Angeles law firm that has been working closely with Norsigian for three years, said he has recruited a team of experts to prove it.
Peter said the team is in the "final stages" of verifying that the photos were shot by Adams. On Thursday, the team began digitally scanning the negatives so the photos could be cleaned up and compared to other Adams photos. Peter said he expects a final conclusion in the "next couple of weeks."
Peter noted, however, that there is no process for officially authenticating Norsigian's negatives or other photographic work for which the authorship is in dispute.
At some point, Norsigian said, he may sell the negatives for a handsome profit. But for now, he and Peter hope to display the photos across the country as a touring exhibition, starting in Fresno in the fall of 2010.
"I'm hoping for the public to enjoy them," Norsigian said.