Imagine getting a call from an estate lawyer telling you that their client, a complete stranger, just died and left you $3.5 million.

Well, last June the University of Arizona's Center for Creative Photography got that almost-too-good-to-be-true phone call.

Before then, the name Arthur J. Bell didn't mean much - if anything - at the photography center.

From now on, though, nobody will forget the name of the photographer and one-time professor at Columbia College in Chicago who made the donation.

Bell's gift will go toward an endowment devoted entirely to a conservation program that covers the salary of a permanent, full-time photograph conservator, said Katharine Martinez, the center's director.

"It was a wonderful introduction to the university for me. A gift of this size is extremely important and exciting," Martinez said.

Bell didn't have any specific tie to the UA photography center.

Martinez said she thinks it's a testament to the center's prestige.

The center, which houses some 90,000 fine prints from famous photographers like Ansel Adams, will now add a few more to its collection.

Upon his death last year, Bell left the center not only money but also about 200 of his photographs.

The center plans to start its nationwide search for a senior photograph conservator - someone with knowledge in both chemistry and photographic history - within the next month or so, Martinez said.

To do the job, someone has to know what materials photos are made of, how they age and how to best care for them, said Gaiwan Weaver, a California-based conservator who will lead a photography-care workshop at the center in May.

Contact reporter Marisa Gerber at or at 573-4142.