Rick Norsigian, the California businessman who claimed last July to have
found a box of lost Ansel Adams glass plate negatives worth millions of
dollars, has sued the Ansel Adams Trust and its managing director,
William Turnage, for slander and conspiracy over disparaging remarks and
behind-the-scenes efforts they allegedly made last summer to discredit
Norsigian's slander suit has uncovered a nasty rift between Turnage and the staff of the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona. Adams, who died in 1984, bequeathed his entire collection of negatives, as well as thousands of prints, to the CCP.
Turnage pressed the CCP to help him discredit Norsigian's claim that Adams had shot the found images. The CCP tried to stay out of the fight. So Turnage finally wrote an e-mail saying he intended to cut off his support for the CCP and become "a public critic" of the organization.
Turnage told PDN that he has since apologized to CCP director Katharine Martinez for his outburst, that last summer's "misunderstanding" has blown over, and that the Ansel Adams Trust and CCP continue to have "an excellent relationship."
"I was just blowing off steam," he says. "Everything was smoothed over."
Martinez declined through an assistant to comment. She was the accidental recipient of Turnage's angry e-mail last August 15: He says he had meant to send it to fellow Ansel Adams Trust board member (and CCP co-founder) John Schaefer, but he misdirected it to Martinez.
Turnage fired off the e-mail 23 minutes after Martinez had sent an e-mail to Turnage and Schaefer, re-iterating that she wouldn't allow CCP archivists to talk to the press regarding the found negatives. CCP staffers had met with Norsigian's hired experts about the negatives, but one archivist had signed a non-disclosure agreement with Norsigian, Martinez explained in her e-mail to Turnage and Schaefer.
Previous e-mails from Martinez and her boss, Dean of Libraries Carla Stoffle, indicated that they were concerned about legal liability if they got involved in the public argument over the provenance of the images.
"John, This is a cynical BS copout," Turnage wrote in a hasty response to Martinez's August 15 e-mail. "I will be ending my 34 years of support and assistance for the CCP and will become a public critic in SF and NYC. I am appalled and disgusted by this cowardice and excuse making."
From the start, the argument over the provenance of the images has been about money, and who controls the reproduction and distribution of Ansel Adams' images and the use of his name. The Ansel Adams Trust has held a monopoly on those rights since the photographer's death.
The trust was clearly threatened by Norsigian's announcement to the press last July that he had paid $45 at a garage sale for a box glass plate negatives that his team of hired experts said were the lost work of Ansel Adams. Norsigian set up a web site and began offering prints for sale, using Adams' name.
Turnage and the Trust tried to discredit the claims--and Norsigian--in the press, and then filed suit to prevent him from using Adams' name to market the images. That lawsuit, over the question of whether Adams really did make the found negatives, is ongoing. A trial date has been set for May, 2012.
On December 15, Norsigian counter-sued Turnage and the Ansel Adams Trust for slander, unfair competition, trade libel, and conspiracy. In the lawsuit, Norsigian alleges that Turnage described him and his associates as "crooks" and "con men" to CNN, called their work "a big lie," and allegedly compared it to propaganda techniques used in Nazi Germany by Adolf Hitler.
"The Trust...sought to derive a direct competitive advantage by intentionally and maliciously disparaging [Norsigian's] efforts to authenticate, appraise, and sell the glass plate negatives and prints developed therefrom," Norsigian says in his claim.
The e-mails between Turnage and the CCP form the basis of Norsigian's conspiracy claim against the Turnage and the Trust. Norsigian obtained the e-mails through a Freedom of Information Request, according to Turnage, who explained that the University of Arizona was obligated to honor the request because it is a state-run institution.
Norsigian states in his claim that Turnage declared "it was 'essential' that the CCP staff speak to the media and state that Mr. Norsigian’s negatives were not created by Ansel Adams."
Turnage declined to comment about Norsigian's lawsuit.
But in discussing the e-mail exchanges and the Ansel Adams Trust's relationship with CCP, Turnage insisted that he wasn't pressing the CCP to say that Adams didn't create the found negatives. "I only asked that the archivist be allowed to talk to the Los Angeles Times about what she had told the Norsigian people" with regard to the provenance of the images. "I felt they [CCP] were abdicating their responsibility to the truth if they wouldn't let the archivist talk to the reporter."
And what had the archivist told the Norsigian people? "I'm not at liberty to say," Turnage says. "You should ask [the CCP]. But you can extrapolate."
Turnage says he was so insistent that the CCP allow its archivists to talk to the press because of a 45-page report by Norsigian's hired experts, claiming they had proof beyond a reasonable doubt that Adams had created the found images. Turnage argues that the report implied that CCP archivists agreed with Norsigian's findings that Adams had created the disputed negatives.
By the end of August--two weeks after Turnage threatened to cut of support for the CCP and more than a month after the story about the found images broke--the CCP posted a statement on its web site saying "We have no reason to believe that these negatives are, in fact, the work of Ansel Adams, and we support the efforts of the Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust to protect its rights in this matter."
Turnage told Dean of Libraries Carla Stoffle in an e-mail that the statement was too little, too late. Stoffle fired back, "You got the best we can do and are going to do. Probably more than we should have. There is nothing in the deed of gift that says we have to hire people who can authenticate negatives or images."
Norsigian says in his slander suit that Turnage succeeded in his efforts "to arm-twist a public entity into acquiescing to his demands," and that the CCP allowed its academic integrity to be compromised.
Turnage now says his threat to withdraw support from the CCP was "meaningless" because there's nothing besides moral support that the Trust could withdraw. Trustees cannot change a trust provision that provides 10 percent of the Trust's publishing royalties to the CCP, Turnage says.
He adds, "I love the CCP and I think they love me. None of this would have happened if it hadn't been for that misdirected e-mail."
Related stories:PDN Pulse, July 28, 2010: Ansel Adams' Print Dealers Cry Foul on Sale of Negatives