Wednesday, September 01, 2010

The Ansel Adams fiasco reminded me of the famous P.T. Barnum words that are not really his

I've has enjoyed watching the "lost Ansel Adams negatives" fiasco play itself out. A bunch of the things just happened to show up in a garage sale, and experts were quick to jump in and say they were real. More skeptical experts, including the Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust, disagreed and the Trust went to court to try to stop the sale of prints from the alleged Adams negatives.

When it comes to collecting expensive art objects, there's a sucker born every minute -- and usually an expert can be found to lead them on. It's ridiculous to think the meticulous Adams would have misplaced dozens of negatives. And even more ridiculous to assume that a print from an unknown Adams negative could be authentic in any way. So much of his signature style was created in the darkroom. If you don't have an original Adams print to guide the printing of a negative, there's no point -- the result isn't an Ansel Adams.

After I wrote this, I decided to check out the "sucker born every minute" quote, which I had always heard attributed to P. T. Barnum, a man well versed in the ways of suckers and the ways to exploit them. But according to, it wasn't Barnum who said it, but rather a competitor of his, David Hannum, who was exhibiting an archaeological fraud that newspapers dubbed the "Cardiff Giant" in Syracuse, NY in the late 1860s. Barnum made his own copy of the Cardiff Giant and then had the audacity to pass his copy off as genuine and accuse Hannum of exhibiting a fraud.
It is at this point that Hannum -- NOT BARNUM -- was quoted as saying "There's a sucker born every minute." Hannum, still under the impression that HIS giant was authentic, was referring to the thousands of "fools" that paid money to see Barnum's fake and not his authentic one.

Hannum brought a lawsuit against Barnum for calling his giant a fake. When it came to trial, Hull stepped forward and confessed that the Cardiff Giant was a hoax and the entire story. The judge ruled that Barnum could not be sued for calling Hannum's giant a fake since it was a fake after all. Thereafter, Hannum's name was lost to history while Barnum was left with the misplaced stigma of being the one to say "There's a sucker born every minute."
Authenticity is a funny thing, in history as well as the arts. Sometimes it consists of distinctions as subtle as that between a "fake fake" and a "real fake."

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