Small Camera, Big Money – Johnny Martyr Thought & Photography

Everyone’s making money off the Leica Number 105 so I thought I’d throw my hat in the ring for a few bucks too. Hi! Before you read any further, like and subscribe like they say! 😉

Don’t know what I’m talking about? Last week, it was announced that the creator of the Leica camera, Oskar Barnack’s 1923 prototype personal camera sold over 20% at auction for a much-more-than-expected price, cashing in at 14.4 million Euros or more than 15 million USD.

When it was first announced that this rudimentary but priceless camera would be auctioned, many news sources and influencers began to describe the known history of the camera and provide some context and commentary.

However, it looks like nothing is ready for this auction to completely, and roughly, obliterate the camera’s previous sales record by an incredible margin.

The last most expensive camera sold at auction was also the 1923 Leica 0-Series, Number 122. This camera was sold in 2018 for 2.4 million Euros.

Given the proliferation of extravagant and seemingly ludicrous spending during the COVID market turmoil such as Kurt Cobain’s $4.5 million Fender Mustang guitar in May, Honus Wagner baseball cards for $6.6 million in 2021 and Man Ray’s Le Violon d’Ingres for $12.4 million, also in May 2022, I’m actually wondering why the initial estimate for the Leica Number 105 is so low. The highest estimate I found was “only” 3.5 million Euros.

So this is what makes the Number 105 so much more than just a dusty old Leica.

Number 105 is Oskar Barnack’s personal camera. He used it to test and refine the Leica design but also just to enjoy the camera’s original purpose; small and light enough to be carried casually for documenting ordinary situations, yet for producing high-quality scenic images that should only exist in memory.

Much like a tatty guitar, a budget, an old photograph someone drew, or a dirty trading card, by all but metaphysical accounts, this basic brass camera can be seen as utterly worthless. It contains no focusing mechanism, the original black enamel coating is worn out, the volcanote is coming off at some points, the viewfinder is a little dirty and the Number 105 even features something that would normally demean vintage cameras – the original owner’s name written all over it. But perhaps like all true collectibles, the Leica Number 105 is as beloved today as it was not meant to be anything more than it was.

Apparently the Leica Number 105 is still working 100%. On such a simple camera, all this really means is that it doesn’t leak light, advances the film accordingly, the number of frame counters and the small compliment of shutter speed is accurate enough to print the film. So maybe the intrinsic value isn’t totally lost if you graduate from the Fred Flintstone School of Street Photography.

15 million dollars, for whatever camera, functional or not, historically relevant or improbable is just an illustration of the widening wealth gap; audacious examples of money laundering; capitalist culture’s obsession with superficial things; and the ongoing worldwide confusion between the terms “invaluable” and “worthless”.

Yes, this is one of only about 23 Leica 0-Series cameras that launched the concept of stream-of-consciousness photography. And yes, it is owned by the person who came up with the ideal DAS execution that is still being sought. The Leica Number 105 changed the way we take photos as well as the way we view photography. But $15,000,000? You mean to tell me that people’s lives somehow cannot be improved on a large scale by more proper application of this kind of funding? Proceeds from sales of Kurt Cobain’s guitars go to a mental health charity. What if we poured $15 million into film production and held off the steep rise in film photographer fees? It might improve our mental health!

Another relevant question: Should such an important cultural artifact be sold privately? Shouldn’t the rightful home of such things be in the careful curation of a public museum? What gives a collector or investment group the right to privatize international assets? Isn’t the Leica Number 105 the property of all of us who have shared his vision? I’m sure this question is older than Warren Buffett, but after this kind of sale, we have to get back to it.

I submit that, to understand the monetization swelling of an unexpected object like the Leica Number 105, we must also appreciate the simple nature of the material which seems to conflict with its price. It’s just stuff. Often these are acquired or rediscovered more or less by chance and require no special investment or care before their cultural value is enlightened. That’s why their value was suddenly surprising. Perhaps without being neglected for a while, the Leica Number 105 will slowly gain value as the business ages and achieves. Would we still be talking about Number 105 if Oskar just left it in Wetzlar for display in the ’50s? Would it just have been lost among ten other 0-Series cameras if it hadn’t been engraved and ownership documented?

In addition to appreciating the unsatisfactory material nature of objects of iconic desire, we must also appreciate how frequent their situational exchanges are. The owner of the Leica Camera 105 could easily be someone cleaning out the closet at a time in his life when money is needed. As outsiders peering at the Leica Number 105 through a safety glass, we are free to imagine lofty ideals – the wiser and more human things to do with money (if we have it), or the object itself (if we have it). However, just as cameras are nothing more than cameras, people are also nothing more than people. And we all have needs, hopes and dreams for ourselves and our families. You may not have $15 million to give away, but you may have a smaller amount. I’m sure photographers reading this have resold their used equipment. While you may not be making millions, chances are, your needs and motivations are no different from those who own this camera. Why don’t you give the $100 or $200 proceeds from your father’s Nikon sale to your favorite charity? Last year, I sold some unused cameras to buy a new laptop for my daughter. Will that vintage camera work longer and retain its value longer than a laptop? Possible. But he needs a laptop for school and I have too many cameras. $15 million can ensure that my daughter not only has the school supplies she needs but also that she goes to a good school and doesn’t have to worry about a used car causing her to miss important appointments. My point is that everything is relative. Yes, even when speaking on this scale – at least as far as I understand it. Does the scale of an action determine the ethics or lack thereof?

According to representatives from Leitz Photographica Auction, the Leica Number 105 stayed with Oskar Barnack’s family until the 1960s when Japanese SLRs started to take over the German rangefinder market and the little camera may have looked dated rather than historic. Number 105 was on display briefly before being sold to a collector in the United States. Not long after the Leica Number 105 left the Barnack family, the Jacobs bought Man Ray’s Le Violon d’Ingres in 1962, Fender made a 1969 Mustang guitar under $200 that Kurt Cobain would eventually buy and the first Honus Wagner card sold in 1973 for $1,100.

Prior to its current top-seller this month, the Leica Number 105 was again on public display at Leitz Park in Wetzlar, Germany where it was built in 1923. The identity of its last and most recent owner is unknown to the public. In a private message with Andrea Pacella, Director of Global Marketing and Communications for Leica, I was told “Identity, as you can imagine, cannot be disclosed.”

From this bit of information, we can surmise that the Barnack family chose long ago to sell the camera and that Leica was not interested in or unable to buy the camera at the time, as well as at the 2022 auction. Given that the company uses its own history to not only guide its marketing, but also new product designs, it’s surprising that Leica itself didn’t acquire the camera. There is even a small camera museum at the Leica Factory where another rare Leica UR 1914 and Leica Ia 1925, among many other important cameras, are on display. Number 105 would be the perfect addition here. And, whatever the cost, I don’t think people will be offended by the purchase because it will probably be available for public viewing. The purchase will make more sense.

My guess is that Leica prefers the accreditation that auctions will bring to third-party buyers of cameras. Thus adding immense value to the Leica brand rather than simply buying back their own camera for posterity. “Hey look, all these people determine how much our cameras cost! They said it, not us!” I also suspect that this is part of the strategy behind Leitz Photographica Auctions as a whole – expanding on the Leica legend and justifying the high prices of current Leica products. This is just my personal speculation.

We can also ponder about the first non-Barnack-family owner of a Leica Number 105. I don’t believe camera collecting was as common a hobby in the 1960s as it is today. So we can only imagine that the first collector to buy the Number 105 was someone with a greater appreciation for modern history and industrial design than the soulless investor we imagine him to be today. He may have died within 60 years of acquiring the camera. Therefore, Number 105 was likely entered into the Leitz Photographica Auction by someone who inherited it from this “pure collector”. This narrative might override the emotional connection of the ultimate owner and could invite the possibility of a sliding need or desire for the financial security of one’s family as motivation for the 2022 sale. A cynic might also point out that this could be the first point in the story where greed might be the motivator. Millions of dollars for relics that Dad or Grandpa left in the cupboard? Of course, many would take this path instead of donating to a museum if it meant that we or our children could live more safely and comfortably.

This brings us to the current owner of the new Leica Number 105. Is it individual? Is this an investment group? Did they find 15 million in the couch cushions or did they risk the farm to make this money? Will this information become public? And does it really matter? Is there any information that changes our perception of this sale?

In my opinion, the Leica Number 105 served its original purpose beyond anyone’s expectations. It helps a photographer with asthma take photos of his family. This launched a revolution in photography which, today is so pervasive that its value cannot be doubted. Number 105 put (lots of) food on the table for Oskar Barnack and his family. And the first collector family to buy it, after it sold.

We can muse about the incomprehensible madness of the recent sale of everything we like, but this is now just another footnote in this strange, magical, mystical, heart-rending, palm-stirring history of this century-old lump of aluminum, brass and glass.

Just like Kurt Cobain Mustang, Honus Wagner trading cards, and Man Ray photo prints, the Leica Number 105 is what it is… and so much more.

Thanks for reading, happy shooting!

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