A team of experts concluded after a six-month examination that the 65 negatives are Adams’ early work, which were believed to have been destroyed in a 1937 fire at his Yosemite National Park studio, Arnold Peter said.
“These photographs are really the missing link,” he said. “They really fill the void in Ansel Adams’ early career.”
Adams is best known for his striking black-and-white photographs, mainly landscapes, of the American West. He died in 1984 at 82.
Rick Norsigian, a construction worker and painter, said he bought the negatives 10 years ago at a Fresno garage sale after bargaining down the seller to $45.
“When I heard that $200m (figure), I got a little weak,” he told a news conference.
Norsigian said he bought the negatives because they contained views of Yosemite but never suspected they might be from Adams, whose images of the Sierra Nevada national park are world famous.
“It took a while, close to two years,” before his suspicions were aroused, Norsigian said.
He stored the negatives in a bank vault and hired Peter three years ago to authenticate them.
Peter said two hand-writing experts concluded that writing on manila envelopes holding the negatives was that of Adams’ wife, Virginia.
He also said a meteorologist studied the cloud formation, snowdrift and shadows on one image and compared it with a similar photograph by Adams, concluding they were taken at the same location on the same day.
The 8.5-by-6.5 inch negatives are the size that Adams used in the 1920s and 1930s when the photographs appear to have been taken, Peter said, and they are of locations he was known to have snapped, including Yosemite, Carmel and San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf and Baker Beach.
Adams’ early negatives were believed to have been lost in the 1937 fire and several of the garage sale negatives appeared to be charred around the edges, Peter said.
Experts surmise they survived the fire and Adams brought them with him when he went to Pasadena in 1941 to teach photography, Peter said.
Norsigian said the man who sold him the negatives said he bought them in the 1940s from a salvage warehouse in Los Angeles.
Art appraiser David W Streets said he conservatively estimated the negatives’ value at $200m, based on sales of Adams’ prints and the potential for selling reproductions.
Norsigian said he tried to contact the original purchaser after learning of the negatives’ true value but has had no success.
“This has been such a long journey. I thought I’d never get to the end,” Norsigian said. “It kind of proves a construction worker-painter can be right.”
An exhibition of 17 of the photographs is planned for October at Fresno State University, and a documentary is planned on the negatives’ sale and authentication, Peter said.