Picture of camera collecting--a well-developed field

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July 25, 1993|By Lita Solis-Cohen and Sally Solis-Cohen | Lita Solis-Cohen and Sally Solis-Cohen,Contributing Writers

While vacationers are busy snapping pictures at tourist attractions, some collectors are zooming to antiques shows and flea markets, setting their sights on snapping up increasingly elusive fine vintage cameras. It's difficult to get the big picture of the small market for rare 19th-century photographic equipment, since top collectors keep out of the spotlight. But what's easily exposed is the well-developed market for affordable 20th-century cameras, as well as photographic related-ephemera and knickknacks.

People collect vintage cameras because they're attracted to them aesthetically, they're interested in the technology, or they're overwhelmingly nostalgic about their own first camera, according to dealers Allen and Hilary Weiner (80 Central Park West, New York, N.Y. 10023, [212] 787-8357), both former schoolteachers. Another angle: Old or unusual cameras often are displayed like sculpture in collectors' homes, and some decorators are highlighting as works of art beautifully veneered wooden box-shaped cameras or whimsically-shaped "disguised" cameras, according to Bernard Danis, an avid collector who sold modern photo equipment for over 40 years at Spiratone in New York.

zTC Where you buy old cameras can make a difference: Mr. Weiner says camera dealers get about $650 for a good-condition circa-1930 Gift Kodak No. 1A with its original cedar case, the box and lens surround decorated withArt Deco designs, but an Art Deco dealer might ask $1,200 to $2,500 for one. New it cost $15.

Valuable cameras

The most valuable cameras are technologically innovative, belonged to an important photographer, or were made in small quantities, says Boston-area collector Thurman F. ("Jack") Naylor, who has 665 antique examples displayed in a private museum. Of the approximately 35,000 different models produced since Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre of Paris designed his first commercial camera in 1839 -- generally regarded as the birth of photography -- only around 3,000 attract much attention from serious collectors, said Mr. Naylor, author of "A Visual History of Photography," due out this winter from Schiffer Publishing.

Most cameras that wind up at flea markets and collectors' shows are relatively common and not very valuable. "While some areas of the market have increased 10-fold, others haven't moved up in all the years I've been buying," says Mr. Weiner. "Camera collecting isn't a field for speculators or investors."

Michael Kessler, a collector in San Juan Capistrano, Calif., concurs, noting: "You'll have to live with most of your purchases for a long time before you might turn a profit."

Although most amateur Kodaks and Polaroids were manufactured in such large quantities that their prices likely won't exceed $50 in the near future, these inexpensive models can create an enjoyable and decorative collection. The original Kodak "Reflex" camera, made from 1946 to 1949, usually brings $30 to $45, while ubiquitous 1960s and '70s Kodak Instamatics typically fetch $3 to $15 each. "Ninety-nine percent of what's out there is of very low value," says a veteran New York photographica buff. It's the hope of finding the other 1 percent that keeps collectors hunting. A Pennsylvanian reports paying $70 recently for a box of "junk"; at the bottom was a camera worth about $3,000. "Except if there was a professional photographer in the family long ago, most people don't have very valuable cameras stashed away," says Mr. Weiner, who nevertheless has discovered low-priced rarities at camera shows and flea markets.

Price guide

The best vantage point on the market comes from "McKeown's Price Guide to Antique & Classic Cameras, 8th Ed." ($49.95 postpaid from its distributor, Centennial Photo, 11595 State Road 70, Grantsburg, Wis. 54840 [715] 689-2153), an important illustrated reference tool for dealers and collectors, which also 00 lists collectors' clubs world-wide. Hundreds of used Kodaks, Canons, Pentaxes, Minoltas, Agfas and Olympuses, among others, are included, priced under $200 each. Kodak Brownies, manufactured from 1900 into the 1960s, generally cost $3 to $25 each, depending on model and age. An exception is a rare original Brownie, a cardboard box-type camera, made for only four months, which can bring $600 to $700 in good condition. A "Baby Brownie" produced for the 1939 World's Fair, with a faceplate commemorating the extravaganza, can fetch $150 to $200 because it has crossover appeal to World's Fair collectors.

For the scouting set, rare circa-1931 to 1934 brown folding Kodak "Vest Pocket" cameras engraved with the Camp Fire Girls' emblem can fetch $325 to $425 each; 1929 to 1933 `D olive-drab American Boy Scout models are worth $185 to $225, and 1929 to 1934 bright green Girl Scout Kodaks are $150 to $250, all with matching cases. The first Polaroid, a heavy brown Leatherette-covered cast-aluminum folding "Model 95," made from 1948 to 1953, is priced $15 to $25 in the McKeown book.

Although old cameras generally aren't bought to be used, condition is key to obtaining top dollar. Frequently, however, worn collectible models can fetch premiums over repaired ones. Cameras with their original cases, boxes, attachments and instructions are particularly desirable.

( Solis-Cohen Enterprises.

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