By Daniel Grotta-Kurska
Reprinted by permission from
Even though this article was published years ago, its basic message is as true today as it was then, and I thought it to be interesting reading even today.
“You keep telling yourself that it’s only metal, glass and fabric, that the damn thing’s nothing more than a machine; a collection of gears, springs and ball bearings. Your mind says that it’s only a camera, just like an Instamatic or Polaroid or a Brownie. But then you take it into your hands, heft it up and down a few times to feel the balance, try out its flawless focusing, fire off a couple shots to hear its ultra-quiet shutter and it becomes an unmistakable instrument of perfection, a thing of beauty. Then you know for a certainty that in this entire world there’s only one thing like a Leica, and that’s another Leica.”
-PHILADELPHIA LEICA COLLECTOR
A Leica is a Leica is a Leica, just like a Rolls-Royce is a Rolls-Royce and a Rolex is a Rolex and a Bang and Olufsen is a Bang and Olufsen. The Leica is, without a doubt, the very finest 35mm camera in the world. Leica is the ultimate of ultimates, the most coveted, sought after, and proudly possessed piece of photographic equipment anywhere. Whether they admit it or not, inside every Minolta or Pentax or Nikon owner there’s a Leicaphile trying to get out. Unfortunately the Leica system, being the best, also happens to be the most expensive. This means that it is priced out of the reach of most serious and professional photographers, who have to make do with their Nikons and spin all sorts of rationalizations and justifications to explain to themselves and others why they didn’t really want a Leica in the first place. This makes for a rather odd situation; whenever photographers get together, they usually talk about photography, but whenever Leica owners assemble, they inevitably talk about……Leicas.
Leica owners belong to a select fraternity who share their status, style and elegance with each other and it doesn’t matter a twit whether they have the latest model or a 45-year-old Model A. A Leica is a Leica is a Leica. Well, not quite. There are super select Leica purists who, for example refuse to acknowledge the existence of the CL model because it was assembled in – horrors! – Japan. Still other Leicaphiles refuse to use the reflex models because they believe Leica should only make rangefinders, the M series cameras.
Owning a Leica can be an infectious, incurable disease. Since Leica owners are already at the top, the only upward mobility left to them is to own more Leicas. Occasionally you’ll meet an elderly doctor or a distinguished lawyer who is perfectly content with his one camera and lens, but they are very much the exception. Once you have the basic camera, the next step is to
possess the entire current camera system. At current (1974) market prices, a system can easily cost $10,000 and up.
After the current system, the really hard-core Leicaphiles inevitably start collecting systems. Over the years, Ernst Leitz, the firm that makes Leicas, has produced so many different models, lenses and accessories that even it isn’t sure where it all ends. But according to its records, in the 50 years that it has been marketing 35mm cameras, it has produced a grand total of 1.3 million Leicas (1974), or an average of 27,000 cameras per year. That means that, in addition to being very expensive, used Leicas also happen to be relatively rare these days.
Leica owners might seem to be a trifle eccentric, but Leica collectors come across as out-and-out high class cranks. They’re an ultra-secretive, paranoid lot who are afraid of fire, theft, and Acts of God. One center city lawyer prizes his Leica collection so much that he keeps it all in two bank vaults, in two different buildings. Another Main Line collector declines to reveal where his collection is squirreled away, but admits that he wouldn’t dare keep it in anything as unsafe and uncertain as his……home.
This type of behavior isn’t at all unusual; most Leica collections, in fact, rarely see the light of day. Since the only person who could possibly appreciate the mystique and beauty of a bunch of cameras is another collector. Leica collections are almost never displayed at home or publicly exhibited. In a way, the Leica collector is like the millionaire art enthusiast who recruits brigands to loot the world’s finest museums of their masterpieces and then build a secret room in his mansion just to privately gloat over the paintings from time to time.
Every collector whom I encountered while writing this article made me promise that I wouldn’t reveal his name, address, or anything else that could remotely identify him. Two of them were so uptight that they actually had me sign legally binding documents prepared by their respective attorneys swearing me to anonymity. And still another collector refused to give me his name and would only speak over the telephone. Incidentally there are ten serious and 250 occasional collectors in Philadelphia, but within a few days time, most of them knew that I was writing an article for the Philadelphia Magazine. They have a very efficient grapevine.
No Leica collector starts with the idea of becoming a collector; it just sort of happens that way. “You get hold of your first Leica and start using the thing and then you want accessories. Then you happen to see an old Leica somewhere and buy it because it looks so good. Somehow you never seem to get rid of equipment and it just keeps accumulating. Then one day, you take out everything, look at it and ask yourself, “Good grief! Where did it all come from?” From that day you are a Leica collector.”
Through the years, Ernst Leitz has produced (manufactured is a misnomer, since almost everything is virtually handmade) an incredible variety of lenses and accessories for its many camera models. Some collectors want to own at least one of everything Leitz has ever made, while others concentrate and specialize. The center city lawyer, for example, has a relatively small collection (30 camera bodies and approximately 60 lenses), but has four ultra-rare Model B cameras. A teenage collector with little money to spend concentrates his efforts in finding small accessories, such as optional finders, lens hoods and filters. Other collectors pass up the cameras in favor of lenses or instruction booklets, or Leica technical manuals, or old advertisements. And if that isn’t enough, still other collectors haunt camera stores to track down the original red boxes which once held Leica cameras and accessories. Nothing Leitz ever produced or printed is without value.
Some Leica items have stories to go with them. Many Leitz lenses, for example were designed by Professor Dr. Max Berek. Like a comet discoverer, he who designs new lens formulas gets to name them. Berek decided to immortalize his two favorite dogs, Hector and Rex, with the Hector and Summarex series lenses. Incidentally, one of Berek’s classics is a lens that was designed back in 1926 and was so outstanding that it is still produced by Leitz.
A recent classic is the M4 camera which was only produced between 1967 and 1971. It is perhaps the most rugged and reliable piece of machinery ever built on God’s green earth. One (true) story is that the Leitz people once put the M4 through an endurance test to see how long the shutter would continue to work before breaking down. To do this, they rigged the camera to a machine that did nothing but mechanically cock and shoot the shutter, once a second, day and night. The machine broke down long before the M4 did. Another true tale concerns the M4 that was accidentally dropped 2,000 feet from an airplane. The photographer eventually retrieved it, dusted it off and continued to use it as if nothing had happened.
More important than classics to collectors are the rarities, or those models which had very limited production runs. One such camera was the Luxus Leica, a blatantly ultra-luxurious model for people rich enough and silly enough to buy it. The Luxus was available in red, green blue or brown leather. Even snakeskin. And believe it or not, even gold plated. Less than 100 were made in 1929 and it rates as one of the rarest Leicas. Another model is the Leica 72, a half frame prototype. Then there is the Leica Gun telephoto camera, of which only a few were made. Other desirable models include the 250-exposure Leica FF, a special gray model IIIc used by the Luftwaffe, a 90mm screw mount Summicron lens manufactured in Germany (all other Summicrons, heaven forbid, are made in Canada), and a IIIc with a self-timer. Every collector is also aware of persistent, unsubstantiated rumors that Leitz secretly produced cameras in South America during World War II, but so far, nothing has turned up to confirm that.
Leica collectors are the first to cheerfully admit that they are probably crazy. “Being unmarried is almost a prerequisite for serious collecting,” says one bachelor collector who has spent over $35,000 in the past 20 years on Leicas. “I don’t know of any wife in her right mind who would put up with this kind of insanity. A Leica collector needs two essential things: an understanding family and a big bank account.”
Their insanity is manifested in many different ways. One collector with 30 cameras, for example, shoots less than 20 rolls of film each year. Another visits the bank vault three or four times a year, unwraps his collection, fires each shutter off a few times and then wraps them back up in Wonder Bread plastic bags.
There is a strong competitive streak among Leica collectors that has to be seen to be believed. It is perhaps the ultimate in one-upmanship. One might have a rim-set Model B, but the other would gloat over his slightly rarer dial-set Model B. Or one might have three Model A cameras, but the other might have one with a lower serial number. And then there is the variation of “I paid $2,000 for mine,” only to be topped by another who proudly announces “I got it for only $35.”
Leica collectors constantly haunt camera shops, watch newspaper ads, attend estate auctions and ask their friends if the know anybody that might have Leica hardware. The serious collectors eventually join the American Leica Historical Society which is only one of many Leica clubs around the world. The society exists primarily for collectors who want to buy or trade equipment. They have even managed to coin a word for their mania – Leicacunabula. Incidentally, most of the ads in the LHSA publication Leicalog have box numbers instead of names and addresses.
A two day Leica factory technical seminar at the Bellevue Stratford in Philadelphia drew about 150 people, but as usually happens at these affairs; practically all those present were less interested in the technical lectures than comparing their Leicas. The overwhelming majority of students were successful, conservatively dressed, middle aged men, although there were a few wives and one or two teenagers. It seemed that most of the men suffered through lectures and slide shows, waiting for the coffee breaks in order to really come alive. I learned some very interesting things through those breaks.
-The largest private Leica collection in the world is, ironically enough, owned by a Japanese rubber tycoon named Kenijiro Nakamura. But the third largest collection is right here in America, in Miami, owned by – sorry, no names please.
-The 2 M4 bodies I had to sell for $150 each in 1971 in order to pay the rent now go for $600 each.
-Leica equipment has no depreciation. Virtually every model and lens made is worth as much or more than it cost originally.
-Old Leicas make damn fine investments. For example, in 1963 a 150mm Alpine lens could be had for $35, but you can’t touch one today for less than $600. Five years ago a Leica IIIc with lens cost $49, but now the body alone goes for $125. And a model B which originally sold for less than $100 was bought by a Montgomery County collector for $2,900 in December and one went for a reported $4,000 in Japan a week earlier.
-Some insurance companies, such as Liberty Mutual, now offer low cost fine art insurance for old Leicas, just as if they were oil paintings by old masters.
-In the past three years, old Leicas have appreciated in value by an average of 300%.
-Leica has, through the years, spawned a lot of imitators such as Canon, Nicca, Tower, Zorki, Ixa, Yashica and others. Some of them have been identical carbon copies. Enterprising but dishonest mechanics now have a brisk trade modifying them and selling the counterfeit Leicas as ostensible rare models.
“The market took off like a rocket about three years ago,” says one serious collector. “Why, I’m not certain, but it could be nostalgia for all things old, or that indefinable mystique about Leica’s legendary quality.”
“My wife hates cameras,” says one local dentist, “but she likes Leicas as investments. She thinks they are a hell of a lot better than the stock market.”
But why do people collect Leicas and why are they now considered to be valuable works of art? “They have the feeling of perfection,” surmises the lawyer. “In an age where everything is breaking down, it is reassuring to take a 50 year old camera and have everything work as perfectly as the day it was built.”
If Leica collectors are crazy, then maybe they are crazy like foxes.