One Man's Story: Online camera auctions and collecting classic Leicas
Leica cameras were made to be used. But, as mechanical and historical objects, classic Leica cameras, lenses and accessories can also give pleasure as collector items. A well known website, Collectiblend, which gives auction results for various types of collector cameras, lists about 650 types and variants of Leica camera and about 530 Leica lenses. This is far greater than most other camera makes. I was surprised to see that there are more cameras than lenses on the lists but Leica always had many types, variants and evolutions long before the M6 ‘special edition’ days. At most camera auctions the Leica cameras and lenses are the largest group and also the ones with the highest percentage of items sold.
When I first started to use Leica cameras about seven years ago (this makes me a comparative neophyte by Leica standards) I quickly became conscious that Leica had a long history and I bought Dennis Laney’s book, Leica Collector’s Guide. It is a very large book and I decided to leave collecting for a year or so until I became semi-retired and had more time on my hands.
About five years ago I was walking through Grafton Street in Dublin when I actually saw an assistant putting a Leica II Model D in the window. This is a modern shop which nowadays largely sells digital cameras, so that event was remarkable in itself. I went into the shop immediately and checked the item. I then went home and checked the Laney book and the price from online sources. The following day I went into town again and bought the camera. Thus my collecting career was born.
At this point I would like to say that while, at this stage, my stable includes 30 Leica cameras, with ‘dates of birth’ from 1926 up to the present time, I am not just a collector. I still use the film models in the field as well as the current digital cameras. There are maybe two or three very old models in my collection which have yet to be used as they are somewhat delicate. I regard myself as an ODC or Ordinary Decent Collector, and my collection is neither very exotic nor hugely valuable. My main interest is in screwmount models but I also have all the main M film models from the M3 up to the M7.
Auctioneers or retailers?
My collecting started with retail dealers but soon migrated to auctions as it seemed to me that there were many models which were rarely seen outside of auctions. I have used a number of houses in Europe and North America to build my collection, the main ones being Westlicht in Vienna, Tamarkin in Connecticut, USA, Rahn in Frankfurt, LP in Sweden and SAS in the UK. I have been, generally, very pleased with my dealings with those auction houses and also with retail dealers, such as Red Dot Cameras and Peter Loy.
I have had such fun, not only in collecting wonderful cameras, lenses and accessories but also in participating in the auction process itself, that I thought I would share my experiences and give some advice based on that experience. Some may recall that I attended the opening of the new Leica facility at Wetzlar and the 100th anniversary of the Leica as I was there to attend the Westlicht Auction held in conjunction with those events. Indeed, this was also the only camera auction that I ever actually attended as all my other participation has been online (about 15 auctions in all).
The following may appear to be somewhat basic to longtime collectors. When starting out, in order to find out whether you are really interested in collecting old cameras, the best way to begin is by going to see and handle various makes (there are other collectible marques besides Leica but this article will concentrate on Leicas) and models at retailers and camera fairs. You may find you are not interested or that you just want a few ‘user’ examples such as one screwmount or one film M or maybe one of each. At this stage the collector disease may take hold and there may, indeed, be no turning back.
Basic books for Leica collectors
You can research details of old models online (see in particular Cameraquest.com, Stephen Gandy’s excellent site), but I believe that nothing beats a good book’and the first one I would recommend would be the Leica Pocket Book 8th edition (blue cover). If the disease really takes hold you can move on to Jim Lager’s three-volume Leica an Illustrated History (a volume each for cameras, lenses and accessories) and the large Laney book mentioned above as well as Leica, a History Illustrating Every Model and Accessory, by Paul Henry Van Hasbroeck. There are other books, but I would suggest that the above volumes would constitute a nice little Leica collector’s library.
Online resources for Leica collectors
As they say in some news bulletins, if you are of a nervous disposition you may not want to read on and may wish to stick with your local friendly Leica dealer. The problem for me is that there are no vintage camera retailers at all on this side of the Irish Sea. Any purchasing has to come from abroad, and so my turning to online auctions was, therefore, a very natural progression. The growth of online auctions has increased the range and value of information available not only about upcoming auctions but also about previous auctions where you can find out prices paid for various models and vintages either on auctioneers’ own websites or on Collectiblend, mentioned earlier. For example, early Leicas tend to go up in price as the year of manufacture goes back and the serial number falls and the Collectiblend website has early 1 Model A Cameras divided into separate entries for different categories of Serial Number—for instance 3 digits, 4 digits, 5 digits. The advantage of Collectiblend is that it enables one to look across a range of auctioneers at the same time and the results and price trends are shown in a graph format.
The auction process
Catalogues usually appear in online format on auctioneers’ websites about three or four weeks before the auction occurs. For each item there is, usually, a start price and then an estimated range. I have found that the approach to estimated range differs somewhat between different auctioneers. Some like to low-ball the estimates in order to attract bidders, whereas others go to the other extreme and try to talk up prices. The way to deal with this is to look at what has happened at the past few auctions as regards hammer price versus estimate. There will, of course, be outliers where the estimated range was not reached or was well exceeded, as auctions represent a true market place where interest can increase or wane over time. Some people like the reassurance that there might be a set price range for say a ‘good M4’ but auctions can turn that notion on its head depending on the number and nature of the bidders involved.
In my experience, the main drivers of the prices at auction are the level of activity (number and nature of buyers interested in the item) followed by rarity, desirability and condition, roughly in that order. Desirability, or a perceived notion thereof, can sometimes even surpass rarity. For example, black and nickel II Model Ds usually sell for more than chrome ones even though the latter are more rare. Experience of online auctions gives a good feel for this.
Grading standards and related matters
I mentioned condition above and descriptions of condition can vary. There is usually a grading system which can be in letter format, for example, A , A-, A/B, B/A, B+ etc or just a description such as Mint, Excellent and so forth. It may take some time to get used to how particular auctioneers grade. Looking at previous auctions is of great assistance in this regard. Generally, cameras, lenses and accessories sold at auction are sold ‘as is’ or ‘as seen’ without an expressed guarantee or warranty but the description ‘ in good working order’ might be used as basis for discussion with the auctioneer should issues arise.
Some people just factor in the cost of a CLA as most cameras between 50 and 90 years old require this and if you intend using a camera regularly, a CLA might be of use, anyway, irrespective of its age. Be careful how you interpret ‘in original condition’ as this can often mean that nobody has put a screwdriver or a can of oil or grease near the camera for many years. The phrase, usually, means that there have been no major mechanical alterations or changes to livery. Leica had a quite active upgrade programme going during the 1930s but, usually, an upgraded camera (for example, a 1 Model A upgraded to a Standard or a Model II) will fetch less than an example that has not been upgraded.
Newcomers to collecting sometimes find this hard to understand as they may consider the upgraded model to be the better camera but that is not necessarily the main criterion of interest to collectors.
The first stage of an online auction is the one up to the actual auction date where you can put down your maximum bid. If nobody else has bid you will be attributed with the start price and your bid will not change unless somebody else submits a bid. If another person’s bid is higher then they will get the highest bid.
You will usually be informed about this by email and you can also check this on your online account. You will need to check from time to time, anyway, as you might still be the highest bidder if someone has submitted a bid lower than your highest bid, but the bid amount attributed to you may have gone up to be one ‘bid increment’ above what the other person has bid. Bid increments vary, but typical ones might be in 10s up to 500 (choose your currency), in 50s thereafter up to 1,000 when bid increments of 100 might take effect and so on. I did say that those of a ‘nervous disposition’ need to look away.
On auction day
This process continues up to the day of the auction and then the fun really begins. There will be participants (attendees) at the auction and, possibly, phone bidders as well as online bidders. The auctioneer will start with the set start price or the highest ‘active’ online bid submitted before the auction. The auctioneer will also treat the online bid made prior to the auction as a ‘book bid’ and will bid on behalf of the online bidder until their highest bid has been exceeded. Does this mean that online bidders are now out of the auction, once their maximum bid has been exceeded? The answer is ‘No’ as there are now live bidding options available through companies like Live Auctioneers, Invaluable and Sale-Room.
You have to register in advance of the auction with the live bidding company and the auction house will approve you as a live bidder through the bidding company. Any successful online live-bids will attract an additional fee, usually about 3%. This will be in addition to the usual premium which can be between 15% and 22%. You will be able to see your additional bids going in and the live bid window should confirm whether you are the lead bidder. You need to keep a close eye on this as bids go in very quickly while the auction is ‘live’ and there may be ‘overlap’ where two bidders bid the same amount more or less together. It is the bid which arrives first that counts.
The other thing to watch out for, is not to start bidding until your maximum bid has been exceeded, that is if you have submitted a bid prior to the auction. If you don’t watch for this you may end up bidding against yourself as your live bid identity and your prior bid identity may not be connected at that stage — they will be after the auction but you may have ‘bid up’ the final price for yourself.
Finally, you have to set a mental ‘stop bidding’ limit of a fixed amount or one bid increment above a certain amount as your bid may not land on the actual limit you have set. When that is reached you need to be prepared to walk away. Live online bidding is just as addictive as being actually at an auction and discipline and planning are required to avoid ‘overspends’. Sometimes, however, you may see an item, which you might like, not moving (no other bidders on the day) and having a live bidding function can help one to pick up occasional bargains.
After the auction, you will receive an online invoice and you can then wire the funds and, in time, you will receive your items. For auctions held outside the EU (eg USA auctions) there will probably also be import duty. Indeed, there is a series of costs to be factored in, other than your actual bid, such as premium, live bid fee, VAT, which is sometimes applicable on some or all of the costs, import duty, CLA, delivery and insurance and, of course, currency conversion where the item is not priced in your native currency. Perhaps this will put off potential participants who may just go back to their friendly local dealer when they see all this detail. I am just listing these potential costs here for the sake of completeness as they will affect the final cost.
eBay or auctioneers?
The reader may have noticed that I have not mentioned eBay or other purely online auctions. That is because I use eBay only for purchasing small accessories Just once, I bought a single lens. By observation, the main difficulty with most eBay sellers is the lack of consistency in camera grading across multiple sellers. Also, ‘buy for’ prices can often be very high compared with the condition of the item on sale.
Some of the recognised auctioneers and retailers have a retail presence on eBay but, personally, I prefer to deal directly with them either as retailers or auctioneers. Some of the extra fees at auction don’t appear on eBay but you may still have to pay import duty when purchasing from outside the EU. Items already sold at auction can appear on eBay from time to time, often several times. This can sometimes be due to parties trying to ‘flip’ the item for a premium in an online environment which is perceived as attracting more potential purchasers.
A few words about fakes
I would just like to say a few words about fakes. It is, usually, easy to spot fakes such as those from the Former Soviet Union (FSU). The main test is the shape of the rangefinder cam (which should be round) but one can very quickly learn how to judge these by a visual inspection. A reputable auction house or retail dealer should, of course, determine such issues before the auction or the point of sale.
An aspect of collecting which may help to focus your collection is what I call thematic collecting. There are so many different Leica cameras, lenses and accessories that it would be nigh on impossible to have a complete collection. Themes such as black and nickel early models, military Leicas and outfits (sets with cases and appropriate lenses) are examples of what I have in mind. I have tried to illustrate this in some of the photographs attached to this article.
Sometimes, you can get into themes by accident, such as my collection of collapsible 5cm Summar lenses. Somehow, many of the cameras which I obtained at auction came with Summars attached and, looking at them one day, I found that I had five different variants of the lens as shown in the photograph attached. These are all excellent copies despite this lens having something of a bad reputation.
Using Summars and other vintage lenses
The images from Summars are quite distinctive, particularly in the area of bokeh. It also helps the ‘vintage effect’ if the lens is uncoated. This lens and others from the same time period provide true vintage rendition which is impossible with any of today’s lenses. Indeed, Nik Filters and other processing suites attempt to provide a vintage look but they are nowhere near as good as what you get with the real thing. The lenses can easily be attached with the latest digital M with just a simple adaptor. Be careful though with the collapsible models and check suitability before collapsing them or you may find yourself collapsing from the cost of a replacement sensor
Growing collections—what next?
Finally, the big problem with collections is that, if you keep on collecting, they will eventually take over your house or apartment and you may have to downsize your collection and participate in auctions again, this time as a consignee. That, as they say, is a whole other story.
This article appeared originally in The Leica Society Magazine, October 2015. Camera and lens images by William Fagan