There is great attention on photography as a fine art. Photographs are, indeed, among the finest works of art currently produced, and the history of this medium, though short, is already storied. There is not as much attention in the auction sphere, however, on the actual objects that make photography possible. Cameras allow the photographer to capture the image, and each is a miracle of engineering and technology. Nest Egg Auctions recognizes the importance of vintage cameras, and has become a regional leader in the sale of vintage cameras and camera equipment.
History of Cameras
The history of cameras goes back to before photography. Since the Italian Renaissance, artists had used a camera obscura to trace out and model their subjects. The idea is simple: have a tiny hole in a pitch black box or room (in Italian, camera) and what is outside the box / room will be projected onto the wall upside down. Strange, yes, but it really does work.
The question became whether there would be a way to “fix” an image from a camera obscura, so that the image could be preserved without the artist tracing or painting what was projected. The first photographs were achieved by Joseph Nicephore Niepce (French, 1765 – 1833) in 1826, and later perfected by Louis-Jacques-Mande Daguerre (French, 1787 – 1855). The cameras that captured these images were, more or less, adapted from the camera obscura, hence the name “camera”. The photograph was fixed to a metal plate treated with chemicals to react to light. Daguerre’s camera and its offspring quickly proliferated, allowing the technology to spread around the world rapidly. Soon, photographers were in every major city in Europe and the Americas. While camera technology quickly advanced, and new processes for fixing images became common, the general concept remained the same until the advent of the digital camera in the late 20th century.
Vintage Camera Makers
By the mid 20th century, personal cameras had become a mainstream object. Most people who could afford a camera owned one, and thus began America’s fascination with taking pictures of absolutely everything (not that I’m complaining!). Various companies and makers competed to make a better camera that was affordable and easy enough for most non-experts to operate and use. In the United States, brands included Kodak and Polaroid, but companies in Japan and Germany made some of the finest cameras. Nikon, Canon, and Mamiya were three common brands from Japan that found mainstream success in the United States, while the German makers Leica and Carl Zeiss (Ikon and Contax) were the gold standard for many (Zeiss lenses are found on many cameras and other forms of optics). Cameras were also made behind the Iron Curtain, with Soviet-made Kiev and Zorki cameras being popular in the Eastern Bloc.
Types of Antique and Vintage Cameras
Cameras have been made in many forms. Antique cameras, based on the earlier style, are large and fix the image directly onto a photographic plate. These types of cameras were cumbersome, and could only take one photo before having to be manually reloaded. These were widely replaced by the early 20th century by film cameras. Film cameras functioned much the same way as earlier cameras, but exposed film rather than a photographic plate. The film could then be developed and prints made. Film cameras were the standard of photography until the early 2000s, when digital photography grew in picture quality as well as affordability.
Another interesting invention was the instant camera, which has recently seen a resurgence in popularity. These were invented by Edwin Land, the founder of Polaroid, in the 1940s. In an instant camera, a photosensitive instant film. The film is exposed within the camera, and it prints out of it. Within minutes, an image appears on the piece of film, and is fully developed before long. While picture quality was not at the level of other film cameras, instant cameras were wildly popular for their immediacy. Polaroid became so well known for these types of cameras that instant film pictures are, indeed, often called “Polaroids”. (Also, contrary to what the Outkast song says, do not shake a Polaroid).
While film and instant camera sales slowed as a result of digital photography, and especially with good quality cameras on smartphones, they never died out entirely. Many photographers prefer a film camera to a digital one, and digital instant photography never quite caught on like the Polaroid models did (instant film cameras have actually seen a resurgence in recent years).
Selling Antique and Vintage Cameras at Nest Egg Auctions
The continued popularity of vintage cameras makes their sale at auction a no-brainer. Particular cameras are especially sought after by collectors, and have brought great prices at Nest Egg Auctions. We sold an 11 by 14 Century View Camera No. 8 from around 1910, with a German-made lens, for over $1,600 in 2011. In terms of mid 20th century film cameras, we have sold a number of hard-to-find Leica cameras for impressive prices: we sold a Leica IIf camera with accessories for over $600 in 2022.
While some cameras are less expensive, collections of multiple vintage cameras sell very well at our auctions. We recently sold a collection of nine vintage cameras, including Canon, Contax, Leica, and Zorki models, for nearly $1,600 in 2022. Lots like this, with multiple cameras in various conditions, are great for dealers, and accordingly garner much attention at auction.