You’ve got a camera in your hand. Found in a yard sale or in your grandfather’s closet. It is old, looks the part of a hidden treasure. Grandpa remembers he used it on a trip to Cuba just after the war. Sure it is worth a fortune.
But don’t book your cruise tickets as yet. Most likely it is not worth much, if at all.
Let’s look at the facts.
As at the day it is written, we have on our database
Most mid last century camera users were occasional photographers, introduced to it just before WWII, and further continuing after. Popular cameras at that era were basic and cheap, as to facilitate the new hobby that was at it’s infancy. Prior to that photo taking was a family affair, where the entire family posed in their Sunday’s fineries at the photographer’s studio.
After WWII camera prices were low and quantities were high as the market was receptive to the novelty of taking a ‘Kodak Moment’. Today same cameras are still aplenty and still cheap. You may come across an old box or folding camera which is worth a mere $10, provided you’ll find a buyer.
Time Magazine cover, 1953.
Quality cameras dated from same period were few, both in models and in quantity made, used by professionals or true enthusiasts. You, or your seller, would have known that the camera was used for such. It is most likely that the owner would have heard about grandpa’s prized camera, along with his war stories.
Today, most collector’s cameras that come to market are European and American made dating from the 50’s to the 70’s, where thereafter the Japanese-made cameras overtook the world. There were Japanese cameras made at the 50’s, but quality was questionable. They were made in relatively small batches, so some do randomly surface, bud scarcity doesn’t make them valuable. This is not to say that all post-war American and European cameras were perfect, far from that. Most were mass produced low-end cameras.
Prices for vintage or plain old cameras are more or less known, with deviation only for a mint exemplar. Unless you’ll find a buyer who needs, really needs the Duaflex you have, the price will be same as all the hundreds sold earlier. It is much like the automotive trade price list, that guides the seller and the buyer as to the car’s value. Only thing is that car trade is daily affair and people understand the concept. A person foreign to used camera trade may not know / understand / accept this concept.
The market is limited. There are only so many collectors who are ready to fork out hard earned cash to buy a classic camera. I don’t think of it as along term investment, although in the extreme it could be. If it is a rare, and known to be rare camera, its value may appreciate. With that, your chances of finding a prewar Leica in a yard sale are on par with getting hit by a lightning while trekking the Outback. So to lay hands on a true gem you’ll spend to spend.
Nobody is going to take pictures with this old camera. You’ve indeed heard about photography students or avid photographers still using film. They have gone the way of the unicorn. Just think of a single reason to use film, save for the reason of using film. The old camera has ended its productive life and on its way to camera’s seniors home.
Don’t believe eBay’s hype. It is a flee market on steroids, yet a flee market. Only a few transactions quoting reserve price – ‘buy it now’ – mature. If ‘buy it now’ offer made sense, it would be bought in a flash. If you see it a day later, it is overpriced. Remember that only one of seven cameras listed on eBay would sell, while the rest go on an endless merry-go-round.
Same applies to ‘rare’. Rare is rare, not what the seller declares it to be. I’ve seen many a ‘rare’ Lubitels advertised, which are as rare as the backyard squirrel. True, when I first saw a squirrel some forty years ago I did snap a lot of pictures of it, but by now I know it is a pest. Like squirrels, Lubitels are aplenty In Russia, but scarce in Skoki, IL, yet rare they are not.
Let’s look into real figures:
When is is written, our database lists 24,620 models. Sure there could be more, and sure there are duplications galore. Yet it is a good place to begin.
Of the above, we have proven value for 21,306 camera models. ‘Proven’ means that we’d registered actual sales transactions for each. This is bases on over 80,000 actual sales transactions that took place in the past several years, since this project had been commissioned. Note that actual number of cameras that changed hand is much bigger than 80,00, but once we get to 20 transactions of a model we slow down on it. For example, if will record each AE1 and K1000 sold, will need a much larger hard drive,
Lets break this figure for tangible sectors. Out of the 21,306 cameras, 11,793 (we are sticklers for numbers) are less than $100, making 55% of the lot. In theory, chances are 1:2 to bounce into something worth over $100, which is not. The cheap, low end cameras were made in hundreds of thousands, each model. The more advanced = expensive the camera was, the less exemplars were made. At the top end some camera models only few are known to exist, and are all accounted for, definitely not offered in a yard sale.
What it means, is that most cameras you stumble upon would be part of the 55%, and as there are still thousands of them out and about, it would be almost certain that you met a cheapy.
To demonstrate, please see the chart below. Note how the number of models made drop, as the value increases.
Now, you may say, $100 is not bad for a find. Lets look at the $10-$100 value distribution:
First, please note that the $10 value assigned is for courtesy only, in reality the have no value. Furthermore, the cheap camera sold, I would guess anything less than $60, carry some added value. It could be immaculate condition, additional accessories, box or manuals or some other attribute that makes it collectible. Else, most cameras at that category would go tho that dust bin.
This narrows your margin of luck. There are tens of thousands of vintage cameras to surface, but you may as well buy a lottery ticket.
A word about the pests of camera world – Kodak and Polaroid. pest meaning they are everywhere. If a martian will go through camera listing on eBay he / she / it would be sure that the Polaroids are religious – they are so ugly and yet so many of them.
We have 427 Polaroid entries. Out of which 270 are less than $25. There are few of the traditional looking Polaroid cameras that are worth some, and the SX-70 are visually different looking. So, a garden variety Polaroid may be worth little, if ad all. And its also ugly to boot, which I already said. You may feel my sentiment.
Kodak cameras were made in endless quantities, it’s pity that such a trail blazing company fell from glory. We list 860 models. Official Kodak figure is 1,200 models, but a large number of this are slight variations, which we ignore.
Out of the 860, 314 models are at the $10 bracket. As above, it is just a polite way to say it’s worth nothing. Further 380 models are under $100, and the rest carry some value. Only 66 models are over $500, which are rare or accounted for.
As earlier mentioned, the low-end products ere made in vast quantities, so they are everywhere.
The European and the Japanese made cheap and basic cameras as well, but in the home photography boom period – after WWII, they had other pressing issue to deal with. A honorary mention – the East German SLR cameras – they are a lot of them, re-branded or originally named, but are not worth much.
For the budding collector any film camera is of importance. Once collection grows differences and nuances surface. Camera generations could be divided into the following periods:
Wood and brass, late 1800’s to early 1900’s.
Bellows and other folders – early 1900’s to 1950’s.
Monoblock mechanical cameras, 1930’s to 1960’s.
As above, mass produced spiritless, dull cameras – 1950’s to 1980’s
Monoblock mechanical cameras but with introduces electronics – 1960’s to 1980’s
As above, fully electronic – 1980’s to 2000’s.
Point and shoot, mechanical or fully electronic – 1960’s to 2000’s
Thereafter all perished.
The wood and brass are scarce, and rarely found in decent condition. The bellows / folders, the mechanical made before and after WWII, and some of thee early electronic are worth collecting.
The fully electronic, the point-and-shoot and the dull cameras as shown here are not collectible, at least to my opinion.
As mentioned above, there is almost firm price for each camera model known to mankind, however, variations exist:
Condition – needless to say that a mint exemplar attracts much more than a well used or a miserable camera. A mint camera price could be ten folds and more over the stated value, while a tired one would be worth hardly anything.
Location – there is a school of thought that geography is a factor in collector’s camera prices. It could and may well be correct at the low end. I assume that a Pony may fetch more in Russia, same as a Smena may cost more in the US. This would apply where shipping costs are a meaningful factor in the camera price. Where camera is expensive and shipping cost is negligible it makes little difference where the camera is, as UPS would carry it overnight from one part of the globe to the other These days, where eBay presents you with global search results at a touch of the button, location is redundant.
Attachments – a classic camera alone carries a price tag. Same offered with matching paraphernalia such as original documents – bill of sale or so, light meters, timers, matching flash gun and bulbs, will sure carry a premium.
Specifics – as with other collectibles, an item may carry a higher price tag if its initial owner is a public figure. Elvis’ pink Cadillac will fetch much more than a same age car driven by a mortal. Alberto Kordas’s Leica used to shoot Che Guevara iconic image is now up for sale, sure will fetch more than a humble Leica.
Trends – after the movie Sideways Merlot sales rose. After Harry Potter series the C3 became popular. Prices could be influenced by factors that make little sense.
Note that above statistics were correct at the date calculated, and may fluctuate.