We get many requests about whether an artwork that someone has acquired through a yard sale, inheritance, or other method is an original photograph by Ansel Adams. We are all optimistic by nature, so we try to look for things that would clearly identify it as something other than an original.
Looking at the Front (of the photograph)
Question #1 – Is it an image that is well known as having been made by Ansel Adams?
If not, and it doesn’t have certain other characteristics, it will be difficult to prove, probably more difficult to sell and not for a very high price. Ansel made many many negatives, and printed or published approximately 1500. Less than 100 are well known to most individuals. So it is possible that you have an unknown Adams print. The best resources for known Ansel Adams prints will be his many books, if you don’t have access to them, try the “400 Images” book.
Question #2 – Is the name of Ansel Adams typeset on the image or paper?
If so, then it is a reproduction of some sort.
Question #3 – Is the title typeset on the image or paper?
The only photographs that Ansel did this with were the Parmelian Print Portfolio of 1927. The paper is a thin vellum, by this time has aged to a pale cream to definite yellow, sometimes signed, sometimes not. Not all of the images are well known, but you can email us the title and we can tell you whether it is one of the images or not.
Question #4 – If you look at the print with a magnifying glass, do you see a dot structure?
If so, it is a reproduction of some sort. If not, it might be a gelatin silver print, or it might be a very good reproduction (such as our Modern Replica).
Question #5 – Is there a signature?
Unfortunately, the presence or absence of a signature is not that revealing. But it is a good data point. Having a signature does not mean it is an original, but assuming it is a real signature, it gets us closer. Not having a signature on the front also doesn’t mean that it is a reproduction, but most Adams original photographs have signatures.
Question #6 – What size is the image?
This doesn’t tell us anything really about whether it is original or not, but is something that we will want to know if you decide to contact us further. If it is larger than 20×24, some of these rules don’t apply.
Things to Look For on the Back (of the mount)
You will have to take the piece out of the frame to check these.
Question #7 – Is the photograph affixed to a mount board?
Many early photographs were loose, meaning not affixed to a mount. Almost all later prints were dry-mounted to a mount board. If loose, and not determined to be a reproduction based on questions 1-5, then it will probably need to be inspected by someone knowledgeable. If mounted, continue:
Question #8 – Is there a stamp or label on the back stating that it is a photograph by Ansel Adams?
Almost all original photographs printed later than 1930 will have a stamp or label on the back of the mount. Not 100%, but close. If not, and not determined to be a reproduction based on questions 1-5, then it will probably need to be inspected by someone knowledgeable.
Question #9 – What does the stamp or label say?
There are a lot of different stamps and labels, the best compilation is in an out of print book published by the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, authored by Karen Haas and Becky Senf. As of right now, we have not received permission to reprint those pages here.
If the stamp includes the words “Special Edition,” it is a forerunner to the current Yosemite Special Edition Photographs or similar, and is NOT an original photograph. If it is signed, it may have a value ranging from $0 (poor condition) to $6-8,000 (depending on the image in excellent condition).
If the stamp includes the words “Photograph by Ansel Adams,” then it most likely is an original. If there is a stamp reading something along the lines of “For Reproduction Only”, than it might be an original, most likely not, but will not have any value in the open market. Reproduction prints should have been returned to Ansel, and are considered to be the rightful property of the Ansel Adams Archive, owned by and housed at the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona in Tucson, Arizona.
This set of questions will not absolutely determine whether a particular print is original or not, authentic or not, but helps to narrow the field considerably. If you haven’t ruled out the likelihood of it being an original, we may be able to help further without seeing it, but would probably have to see it to be certain.
The information we would want is:
And pictures of the image, any and all stamps on the back, and the signature.