Buying collector’s cameras
To become a camera collector is simple, It takes two things, to like cameras and to collect them. The liking part is easy, as cameras made between the late 1800’s and about 1970 are a state of the art objects in any which way you’ll look at them; mechanics, optics, and design. It is easy to fall in love with such objects.
The collecting part is where it hurts. While love is free, to get the cameras you’ll have to part from some cash.
There were only so many mechanical cameras made, call it antique, vintage, or plain old. Most ended at the garbage heap when overshadowed by new technology. The rest are either at collectors’ and dealers’ hands, and the remaining cameras slowly come out of their owner’s homes. If there is a turning point as to when to get into camera collecting, it is now. After this round, in a decade or so, all vintage cameras will be out, at much higher prices. As the boomers fade away, their belongings are out for grabs. Same as expensive porcelain dinner service that no one wants now, so are these cameras.
Most collectors come to be interested in a certain camera style or brand, from where it builds up to. Assuming this is the case, please see below where to look for the foundation of your camera collection.
In broad terms, there are three types of camera collectors. Budding collectors carry two Brownies, two Polaroids, and an XL cine camera, and are content with it. Thereafter, collectors that carry several dozens of vintage cameras, enjoy them as they are. And, then come the nuts, having hundreds of cameras, tinkering with them, always in a hunt for the one camera that life is not worth living without. The latter group needs no direction as to how and where to find vintage cameras. So for all other fellow collectors, here are some thoughts and directions.
There are five ways of buying old cameras:
- Good camera for an expensive price. This is the most sensible way to buy a camera.
- Poor camera for a cheap price. Regrettably happens often.
- Good camera for a cheap price. A myth, the same as finding a Leica in a garage sale for $3.
- Poor camera for an expensive price. Like 2 above, but hurts.
- Forget the camera and save your money and energy for more useful things.
Needless to say that if you are a seasoned camera collector and had already gone this path, I would love to have your notes.
A general note
You can buy a camera seen or unseen. Seen, where you touch and feel. There are many websites that will explain at length how to check a camera, so will not go there. Unseen, meaning online, where it takes a trained eye to evaluate the purchase based on images shown.
- Description – the more detailed it is the better your chances to land a decent camera. With no reference to body condition or functions may get you a dud. ‘Untested’ should ring an alarm bell.
- Images, the more the better. if possible, compare the images to other images of the same camera model. This way you may see if a limb is missing or it is excessively worn out, which happens a lot with poorly kept old cameras. You may also note the overall condition.
Asking before a purchase is not always possible, but if it is you better verify concerns prior to purchase. There is no use badmouthing an online seller while a question beforehand could have eliminated a disappointment, and you will not get stuck with a sorry camera.
Camera value and price.
There is a wide gap between a collector’s camera value and price. Value is defined by how much you want it, which in turn is defined by many factors. Price is how much would you pay for a particular exemplar. The first is emotional, often rationalized by future or investment value, the latter is hard cash spent. To get a relative idea, with the accent on relative, there are several price indication sources:
eBay can be a quick reference guide, searching for a model and checking the “show sold only” on the left side settings. While this can do with a Pentax K1000 or a Canon AE1P, which are always offered and sold, it would not do with a less popular model. Further, the data shown is for about six months prior, so it lacks depth. Just remember that the asking price is nowhere close to the ‘real’ price, don’t be fooled even if there are many offers at a certain price, it is just wishful thinking of the sellers.
McKeown’s is considered to be the Bible of the camera trade. It is a heavy tome, listing most of the camera models and makers out there, adding a brief description and some notes. Book is available as used or new, no online version as at the time this is written. The downside is that the latest version is long in the tooth, already 15 years old. Assuming vintage cameras costs are stable, you may land a copy and refer to it for pricing. The prices suggested are mostly correct, with misses here and there.
Kadlubeks Kamera Katalog is in German, listing many models but little information on each.
Collectiblend.com is the site that pops up first when looking for a vintage camera value. It is an easy and quick reference, save for the fact that prices are out to lunch. It is evident that the author invested much time in this site, but am not sure where prices were taken from. Suggested prices are stagnant with seemingly no updates.
Camdex.ca is the youngest of the lot, been on the air for about six years. it is by far the most accurate and realistic vintage camera price guide. There are several ways to search for a particular model, either by wildcard, brand, and model and via brand and images.
There are other printed price guides, regrettably not worth the paper they are printed on.
There is an easy way to find out which of the above sources is realistic. Decide on several models, find out several actual selling prices on eBay as above, and compare the real-time results with prices indicated at collectiblend, camdex and McKeown’s, should you have a copy.
What is a collectible camera
It is hard to define which camera is ‘collectible’. In broad terms, a collectible camera is a model that will do well as an investment or a rare model. I would doubt that a camera collection is a good vessel as an investment. If you like a model, get it. Otherwise, it makes little sense to buy an expensive camera and hope for it to appreciate. There are rare cameras that would pay a good return, but most are out of reach of the average collector.
Most early to mid last century camera brands are inexpensive, though a few models of a brand can fetch a nice coin. For example, the cameras made by Miranda are dirt cheap, save for the “T” and it’s derivatives that are valued at the thousands. Some camera makers are not considered worth collecting, such as Wirgin and Agfa in the German range and Taron and Ricoh of Japan.
Even sought after brands such as Nikon and Canon offer a lot of cheap models, so best to evaluate the particular model value. Same, a bellows camera is not necessary a valuable one. Why some cameras enjoy a better status I don’t know. To me, all are a state of art to some degree.
Avoid Polaroids and cheap Kodaks. So many were made that even if your great-grandchildren will follow your hobby, these cameras will not be considered collectible. There are about 60,000 Polaroid cameras offered on eBay at any given time as if by law each household in the US was compelled to buy one or two. The same applies to most cine and point and shoot cameras, although a few are considered classics and carry some value.
Comes to mind first as a quick and handy marketplace – flea market on steroids. As with any other purchase on eBay, offers need to be well vetted. Read the description, and try to decipher it. There were oceans of ink (mountains of toner?) used to write articles about buying on eBay, where a good place to begin is Learn how to read eBay item descriptions’.
We may add to that:
- You get what you pay for. If it is offered for little and no takers, there is a reason you may not be aware of it.
- Buyers often shun first-time sellers. It is indeed a risk, but while others shy away you may lend a bargain. The seller may want to build up a positive sales trail, even at a cost of early low selling prices.
- Watch pictures carefully. A side of the camera that is not shown may have a blemish. I learned it the hard way.
- Statements as ‘we are no camera experts’ and ‘not sure if working’ should draw your attention. It would likely be DOA.
- Avoid ‘buy it now’. Real bargains are snapped within minutes. Any post older than an hour is not a bargain.
- eBay ads are shown worldwide. It is rare to find a bargain there. But if you are ready to pay the ‘right’ price it is a decent place to buy.
- eBay sellers are there for a gain. A reserved or starting price does not always represent the real value. Look for charity sellers, even in other countries. At charity outlets, camera prices there start very low, as any unsold camera becomes a liability for them.
- Dot be fooled by high asking prices. eBay.com sees about 4,500 cameras posted daily in the film and vintage cameras categories combined. From there, only about 700 meet a buyer. What it means is that most cameras – six out of seven – remain unsold. Not sure what happens to them, either dropping off the system or being relisted at a favorable rate. What it really means is that rush could be costly. As a side note, if anybody from eBay reads this – I believe that the merging film cameras and vintage cameras categories is long overdue, as there are hardly any new film cameras made. Both film and vintage should be classified as analogue cameras, as it is done in Europe; or simply lumped together under ‘film and vintage’.
- What is the right price – as stated above, consult suggested camera prices.
- I have seen buyers paying tens of thousands for a camera offered on eBay. With buying an automobile one could rely on third-party inspection services. If the seller is other than an established and well-respected camera dealer, I would have taken such sales with a grain of salt.
- You may use eBay alert service to alert you on a new listing, but it reports once daily so it could be late. Alternatively, there are other online services, free or otherwise, that will alert you in close to real-time so you could catch that ‘buy it now’ gem.
- eBay does a good job removing bad sellers, unlike Catawiki that fails to do so. See my notes on them.
- An honorary mention: You may find unrealistic high prices in ads from the former Soviet Union, Eastern Bloc, and Japan. Sellers from the former East Bloc perceive the westerners to be awash with cash and quote their prices accordingly. In Japan prices for anything are higher than elsewhere, so they quote straight conversion of their prices. Note about sellers from Japan – grading is questionable at best. You may find a camera graded at A+++, while the attached images suggest anything but. Same with lenses.
- Further on the former Soviet Union: there seems to be a thriving industry of faking Leica cameras, rebranding early Fed and Zorki models. Buyer beware.
‘Antique’, consignment and home decor store
One thing is common to all – unreasonable/dumb asking prices. When an old Brownie bullet carries a $70 tag and asks for a plain Agfa Ventura $250 (real cases), it’s clearly not the place to buy. Here sellers are used to converting worthless goods into glorified home decor, at profit margins by the stratosphere. What is beyond me – an innocent buyer will not buy such an ‘antique’ camera to begin with. A collector will not pay a silly price. Go figure. What annoys me – the way the seller looks into your eyes and convinces you that his price is right. I think that sellers here are detached from reality, intentionally, as it is easy to find a vintage camera real value guide.
What will you find there – a lot of box cameras, everything bellows, and the compulsory Polaroids. All that at prices that include the date and the street number. Don’t waste your time.
Depends on which and where. An established – permanent – city flea market will always have a seller or two specializing in old cameras. It is more a tourist attraction or pastime place, rather than a place to buy anything of interest. You may pick up a cheap pair of jeans or fake perfume, but not a bargain camera.
On the other hand, a true flea market, such as in a remote rural area or in a small village in Kazakhstan, could be a place for good finds. Pity that camera collectors hardly go there. Consider that while a decade or so ago flea market prices were decided by the seller based on his / her assessment of the buyer’s appearance and eagerness, today every seller at every location worldwide has access to real camera prices.
In a flea market it is often an impulse buy, but subject to examination and the obligatory haggling – one could get a nice camera; though not something you ever thought of having.
What will you find there – mostly the basics, entry-level cameras with the occasional surprise. Sellers tend to know the value of their wares.
Today even toothpaste is sold online, so camera shows have lost their panache. Shows are less attended by sellers and buyers alike. In the past, a camera show was a busy event whereas today it is a mere shadow of the old self. Seems that the same sellers are displaying the same wares, year after year. Prices are higher than the market so unless you’re looking for specifics you may want to look elsewhere. The only advantage here is that you can touch and test the camera. All that is if the show is in your neighborhood. It is really not worth the travel anymore. Search for your local camera show and subscribe to their mailing list. See Photorama for dates in the US.
What will you find there – everything, save for bargains.
Most communities still have the local weekly newspaper with local news and ads, where you may find a good butcher or a handyman. Nobody reads that paper save for the old folks – top on your target sellers list. Seniors who are not internet savvy still use local papers for sell and want ads. You may insert a ‘want’ ad and something will for sure come up.
What will you find there – family heirlooms in search of a family. Prices would be in line with the sentimental value rather than the real one.
No bargains here. The best way to find the camera you are looking for is by visiting a specialized store. Be it in a brick and mortar or virtual; the selection, quality, and expertise make the difference. While on the wane, there are ‘real’ stores in most large cities. Else, a reputable online store would be as good, save for you being unable to caress your new acquisition before money changes hands. Look at Pacific Rim or KEH, among others. Most camera stores have a presence on eBay. Here you may get an honest description and valuation of the camera offered, warts and all.
For specific cameras, there are online fan clubs that buy and sell cameras within that brand. Facebook camera groups may be a source as well.
What will you find there – everything, if you know what you look for, and are willing to pay the price.
Craig’s List, Kijiji, Kleinanzeigen, Gumtree, dba, Qukr, or whatever name online classified boards go by around the globe. Much like eBay, but at your immediate locale to just haggle your way through. notes to consider:
- The aging boomers need to rid their lifelong acquisitions, so here is a user-friendly and low-cost outlet.
- Do not expect sellers or buyers to behave at your standards or any acceptable at that. There are a lot of crazies out there, and crooks to boot. Common sense is paramount. A personal case: some years ago we advertised in a local online classified a set set of pickup racks. A polite person called and asked where can it be seen, which we told him. The very same night the racks were stolen off the truck.
- Online classified prices tend to be cheaper than eBay. There are no costs to eBay, so the seller gets a better return. At one-on-one transactions cash changes hands, so no tax, if any. There are no shipping and clearing/customs charges, so the buyer pays only the amount agreed. As with eBay, real bargains are snapped up in no time. If you feel a camera is offered at an attractive price, act immediately – the seller expects it. Tomorrow may be too late.
- If not immediately snapped, you may hold for a couple of days and then counteroffer, when the seller is more likely to compromise.
- Bargaining in way of counter-offer is a common practice, save for cases where the asking price is decent. Just pay the price and go home happy.
- Look at what else the seller offers to get an idea of his price expectations. For a low-end seller, a buyer who is ready to shell a substantial amount for a vintage camera is a black hole, so you may press hard for a better deal. On the other end, a high-end vendor will simply ignore low offers. Look at the item’s variety – a scavenger seller offers anything he/she can lay hand on and will aim to offload it fast.
- A seller who knows his / her trade will most likely quote a price within reason. A two-bit merchant will throw any figure at you. Do your research ahead of time.
- The most annoying ads are the overpriced items and the ’please offer your price’. It’s either the seller is unaware of the market value or is in search of the sucker on duty.
- Save for common sense, there is no rule as to how to buy at online classified. Seen cases where an elderly seller asked $500 for a Canon AE1, reasoning that’s what he paid for it decades ago, hence its current value. At the same time, found an immaculate Contessa 35 for $20, the seller just wanted to get rid of it. No haggling is needed.
- If you happen to find a nice expensive camera and suggested meeting place is at a street corner, it might be wise to check the serial number in advance lest it fell off a truck. An online search may help in finding hot serial numbers.
- Once you travel the countryside, a good practice is to look for such ads off the beaten track. A remote location will have only a few buyers so products may be priced as such.
- If you are proactive, a ‘want’ advert may dig out some passive sellers. I see more want ads, so guess it works.
- As with eBay, the boards will alert you for a new listing, once a day. There are online utilities that may do the same in real-time.
- Unless you live in Andorra, Murphy has it that any nice antique camera that you may want is at least two hours’ drive away.
What will you find there – a lot of Canons, Kodaks, and Minoltas, dated from the ’70s onwards which are nice to begin your collection with, and a lot of point and shoot cameras that you may want to skip.
Online specialized camera auctions
There are local auction houses in any city of substance, and even some at places even Google Maps has yet to record.
Auctions can be grouped into two categories. Small, local auctioneers that happen to have a camera or two in their weekly offering, and major auction houses that run camera-specific auctions several times annually. The royalty of the auction universe is Westlicht Auctions, Photographica Auction, and Auction Team Breker, where offerings are immaculately detailed, followed by excellent images and condition report upon request. Products offered here are not thrift store-type cameras, but rare, expensive, most likely both.
Others, such as Special Auction Services, EPlive, Tennants, or LPPhoto are less polished and welcoming. It takes more time and patience to navigate here, and with LPPhoto also assistance from Google Translate.
One notch below you’ll find the likes of Catawiki Auctions or Buyee, which offer ongoing auctions of cameras and accessories. I had a not too pleasant run with both, see Catawiki and Buyee personal experience. For Japanese auctions, there are more proxy services such as Jaus or Japamart, but apparently same communication and delivery issues plague them as well. Auctions are conducted in Japanese, and translations need a good deal of imagination to decipher what it really means. A special mention, the daily auctions of ShopGoodwill. Works only for US residents and Canadian having a US address and ample patience. Note descriptions as they are frequently creative, and watch pictures else you are in for an unpleasant surprise.
At the low end, there are many, impossible to quantify, local auction houses that sell estates, collections, and just everything. The best is to subscribe to consolidators such as Invaluable, The Salesroom, or Live Auctioneers. Such service will keep you posted with auctions around the globe. Bidding through them will cost you some extra points, but it is well worth the service. Auctions advertised are online, where the on the ground participating bidders will have an advantage on you in seeing and assessing the camera. At the high-end houses, you may ask and get a condition report.
Note that the above services will present you with worldwide sellers. So if you are in Oz and the seller in the US or vice versa, you may need to either stay up late or rise early to participate.
Also, pay attention to the house’s commission and local taxes, both could be high. If an auction is in another country allow for exchange rate and local clearing/customs charges. Further, you’ll need it packed and shipped, which could be costly as you are in a local shipper’s hands, and they are well aware of that and show little mercy. Some high-end auction houses also accept only bank transfers, and I don’t mean PayPal or alike, but good old and expensive bank transfer. Considering that, it may not be prudent to buy a cheap camera in such an auction. Say hammer is $100, additional charges could well be:
|Clearing, taxes or duty||$60|
It would be wise to consider it prior to bidding.
In the high-end auction houses, the hammer price on collectors’ cameras could be ten folds higher than the same camera at other sources, as exemplars offered could be in immaculate conditions or other special attributes. At the low-end auctioneers, it is a crap-shoot, you may get lucky, or not. An honorable mention: just bought a camera through the Sales Room. Once I had paid I got a message from them, quoting shipping costs to be GBP 70. Weeks ago I got another camera from the UK shipped for less than half of that, and some months before a lot of five cameras shipped for GBP 50. This is for packaging and shipping. I was ready for the usual email fight but then got a mail directly from the auction house, quoting GBP 30 which I have promptly paid. Nevertheless, got a reminder from The Sales Room, still quoting GBP 70 for the shipping. All shipping charges mentioned here are regular mail, nothing fancy. Go figure.
It is wise to register for bidding in good time before the auction, as at the auction time sellers will be too busy to accommodate latecomers. Last word about auctions: in the high-end auctions you’ll find good images and descriptive information. In the country auctioneers, you’ll often find a box of cameras poorly photographed.
A word of caution. Some auctioneers use several online bidding services. I once caught myself bidding against myself using two online services. I could justify it by my old age and poor memory, but this definitely not the way to go.
What will you find there – whatever you want, if you could afford it.
Word of mouth
Rumor has it that in any old farms there is a vintage car in a barn waiting to be rediscovered. Same, every boomer family has a vintage camera or two. Just mention it at any opportunity to anybody who lends you an ear. Camera collecting is uncommon, and most people will be happy to add their old camera to your collection, very likely for free.
Rummage and charity sales
A good place to visit. You may find old cameras that otherwise would end up at charity stores or a garage sale, but there could be several cameras at one venue instead of running around. Homeowners who will not be caught dead having a garage sale will gladly donate an antique camera to a charity sale. As with a garage sale, an early start would help.
What will you find there – here you may score well. You are one-on-one with a seller – the charity – who is most likely unaware of what they offer and just want to get rid of it.
Local estate and downsizing online auctions
Following the ‘everything online’, there is an upcoming new online tool for estate clearance and senior’s downsizing. Local online auctioneers offer short-term auctions, where bargains can be found. In theory, prices should be better at such auctions, but not always so.
In most cases, you are required to pick up the loot in person at a given date and time. For an out-of-town auction, you may hire a local shipper to collect, pack, and ship to you, which adds to costs. Watch for the auctioneer’s commission and local taxes. Maxsold or estatesales.net are such upstarts. Look for similar ventures in your area, they are coming up everywhere.
Same as with charity thrift stores, you may get bags full of photography goodies as a bonus.
Note for auctions: at eBay or major auctions houses you bid against the clock, so unless you bid really high you will lose to sniping. Some smaller online auctioneers offer soft-closing, where in the last few minutes each fresh bid resets the closing clock by another minute or two. This for sure eliminates sniping but leads to an annoying bidding war.
What will you find there – there are diamonds in the rough. Most stuff is whatever was bought on the cheap and yet was not discarded. With patience, there are high-end cameras to be found, not bargains though.
Thrift or second-hand stores come in different names and support a variety of causes, either for profit on not. Homeowners donate anything and everything if just to avoid dumping fees. Interesting observation – there are more charity thrift stores in the better-off parts of town than in the poorer, which shows that such stores are there more for the donors.
Some stores aim to recycle their inventory fast. Here an old camera is just an item that uses shelf space, the faster it goes the better. Other stores hold it in high regard, asking silly prices. Bargaining always works, don’t be shy. Some thrift stores hold a senior’s discount policy for a certain day of the week, so one may recruit a silver-haired friend for that. Ask for when they carry a special sales day – if the camera will not be snapped before by others you will save.
How they price the old cameras is beyond comprehension. Seems that anything with bellows or a Nikon tag is marked up twice the lowly cameras. Common sense suggests that cameras should be cheaply marked and be sold fast – after all their direct cost is zero, save for overhead.
On the other hand, in many cases, the camera comes with its owner’s bag, which is too much trouble for the store to throw away. You may find more than what you’ve bargained for – lenses, light meters, rolls of film, and whatnot. There are fables about finding high-value cameras on the shelf, sold for peanuts. Never happened to anyone I personally know.
I suspect that the stores are in cahoots with camera or antique dealers, so the cream is removed and does not see the shelf. You may try and arrange such terms with the attendants.
What will you find there – Canons and Minoltas, with some added 70’s – 80’ European cameras and plenty of Polaroids.
While is thought to be a good source for cheap finds, I never had any success there. All decent old cameras, if any, are bought at daybreak. It takes an early start and sieving through a lot of junk, to get lucky, if at all. Some are addicted to garage sales, so you may ask such a devotee to look on your behalf.
I would also suggest that my poor luck in garage sales is due to the fact that I hardly ever go there.
What will you find there – nothing of substance. Some old plastic cameras that were cheap at their time and are now worthless.