The Vogue for Vintage Cameras
Whilst serious collectors have been interested in antique & vintage cameras for a long time, there is a new community of budding enthusiasts emerging, and a growing market for these examples of photographic history.This rising source of appeal may be a kind of backlash against technology and the digital age, a nostalgia for a time when devices were made to last and each photograph precious, a time before instant gratification.
There are groups of increasingly younger people following this collecting cult, in many ways deeply related to the vintage movement.
Thus the demographic of camera collectors has shifted, from the realm of the affluent, whose focus is the extremely rare and significant cameras, into that of a much more widespread and budget-sensitive audience, interested in cameras as affordable collectibles.
This in turn has prompted a boost in the market for the seriously valuable antique and vintage cameras, and some of the highest auction prices for cameras have been achieved over the last year.
Photography arose in the mid 1800s. That’s a long time for a vast spectrum of models, brands and styles to be produced.
The oldest cameras were made from wood, brass and leather. The very oldest, like Daguerrotype cameras, are museum worthy and can fetch six figure prices. These were all originally produced for the use of professionals.
As the popularity of photography grew, companies began mass-producing models for use by the general public, for amateurs and enthusiasts. Photography became available to anyone. The early days of camera manufacture saw the trial-and-error process of various designs and ideas being implemented and refined, and the standards of photography established.
With the introduction of roll film, rather than the large treated glass plates that early photography used, cameras became smaller, less cumbersome, and more portable.
The 1960s marked the change from viewfinder to single lens reflex, SLR, cameras. This became the standard for quality amateur photography.
Guide for collectors
The sheer scope of antique & vintage cameras available means that while rare examples in good condition can fetch extremely high prices, more common designs, especially examples that are somewhat the worse for wear, are worth very little, maybe just a few dollars.
Value varies hugely dependant on the model, manufacturer, the rarity, and condition of each individual camera. Unusually, while being functional can increase value, it is not always necessary as many collectors are more interested in the aesthetic display appeal than the working condition of a camera. Therefore cosmetic condition may be more desired than working order.
Certain brands hold much more interest to collectors than others, as historically significant, as renowned for their quality, or the camera of choice by some of history’s favourite photographers. It is worth researching the history of each camera you come across and learning about the development of the model and brand, their reputation and significance.
Look out for high quality materials, gold plated metals, and desirable features and adjustments.
Collectors also often focus on one type of camera, for example box cameras, folding cameras, rangefinders, SLRs, TLRs, toy cameras, sub-miniatures, stereo cameras, tropical models (destined for tropics, wood less susceptible to heat and damp), panoramic cameras, bellows cameras and folding cameras.
If you find a popular collectible camera that retains its original box, this is a rare thing, so definitely go for it as these raise the value of the camera.
The bible of camera collecting is McKeown’s Price Guide to Antique & Classic Cameras. If you can find a copy, educate yourself.
While quality imitations of big brands like Leica were produced by respectable companies, there were also numerous bad quality inferior fakes created. Make sure you are not taken in by the latter.
On a budget
Collectors looking for a nice antique or vintage camera with a limited budget should look to the models that are well respected designs, but not as rare, and always try and find those in the best condition possible.
Once some research has been done, it may also be worth focusing on a model that does not have a particularly large following as such, but is unusual and interesting. You may get lucky if this design gains a following later.
Look to eBay, at flea markets, charity shops and second hand. Many cameras are sold for a fraction of their value by people that are simply unaware of the interest in them. However, particularly on eBay, many people think that just because a camera is old, it is valuable. This is not true, as many were either mass produced, or not very good quality. Your best asset is by learning as much as you can about the value of the cameras you wish to collect.
Cameras are often sold in great job lots, with numerous models included. If you can find a lot with hidden gems, you may be able to pick up several for a cheaper price than buying them individually.
Recent auction sales
- A record £603,837 was paid for a Leica Luxus I, sold by Bonhams at their first dedicated Leica sale in Hong Kong in November 2012.
- €1 million was paid for a gold-plated 1929 Leica Luxus, at a Westlicht auction in November 2012.
- At the same auction, the top seller was a Leica M3D, used by David Douglas to photograph Picasso. IT sold for €1.7 million, the record for a commercially produced camera, and the second highest price for any camera at auction.
- The record highest price for any camera was paid for a Leica O-series, sold for €2.2 million at Westlicht in May 2012.
As evidenced by the Leica sales of the last year, many brands and individual models have a cult following. Here are some of the most popular.
Ansco – The American Ansco company manufactured inexpensive cameras during the early 20th century, and merged with German company Afga in the 1920s. The early budget cameras they produced are popular amongst collectors, and not too expensive. Their good quality and reasonable prices make these a great antique camera for new collectors. The Anscoflex I and II are particularly attractive and affordable, often available for less than $25.
Kodak – The Eastman Kodak company, New York, produced cameras from 1888, and are still going strong. Kodak revolutionised the photography industry, producing a camera using film roll instead of glass plates. Their numerous models of Brownie cameras, introduced as cheap photographic equipment for the masses, are now popular collectors’ items.
Konica – The Japanese company Konica is the oldest camera company in Japan, founded circa 1873. The Konica I was built in 1946, and the 1960 Konica F is a rare holy grail for collectors, being the second SLR camera created with a maximum shutter speed of 1/2000th of a second. Other Konica models are relatively inexpensive, perhaps a step up from the very budget models into the hundred-or-so dollars mark.
Leica – The German Leica company revolutionised photography in the 20th century, and produced the cameras of choice for many noted photojournalists and street photographers. Leica are the most valuable and sought after cameras at auction, consistently fetching the very highest prices. Particularly collectible are the Leica I, Leica Standard, Leica II and Leica III models, produced between 1925 and 1932. Leica introduced the 35mm rollfilm camera which became standard. Leicas are expected to be high earning auction items, so if you can find one in good condition being sold inexpensively, perhaps by someone who doesn’t know the camera’s worth, it may be worth jumping at it.
Minolta – The Japanese company Minolta was founded in 1928. The Minolta-35 was modelled on the Leica rangefinder camera, and was hugely popular. Most vintage Minolta cameras are common and affordable.
Nikon – Today one of the most well known and respected producers of photographic equipment, the Nikon company has a history stretching back to 1917. Their cameras became popular in the mid 20th century, and the 1959 Nikon F-series established the company as a leading camera manufacturer. This model was used by many professional photographers. The Nikon-F introduced features that became standards of much SLR photography. Vintage Nikons are among the most sought after of collectible cameras, and the rarest examples can fetch very high prices.
Thornton Pickard – The British company Thornton Pickard manufactured cameras from the late 19th century up until 1939. Popular models include the Ruby and Rubyette. They also produced cameras for military use during World War One, and are known for producing their own shutters. Depending on age, condition and rarity, they can sell for anything from £20 up to several thousand.
Polaroid – Polaroid cameras were revolutionary designs, producing instant prints of the photographs taken rather than having to wait for entire films to be developed. Vintage examples are widespread, as the brand was so mass produced. They are not particularly rare or valuable, but popular with collectors all the same. Many buy them with the intention to use rather than display them, though Polaroid film is increasingly expensive and hard to find.
Rolleiflex – Vintage Rolleiflex cameras are among the most expensive and desirable collectible cameras. The first model was introduced in 1929, and was the first medium format roll-film camera. Many are twin lens reflex (TLR) cameras, though other designs in various formats were also created. They can fetch prices between $20 and $4,000, so each example can vary a great amount.