When Keith South presses the trigger on his folding roll film camera from 1927, he’s reconnecting with family history. The modest German import, of uncertain make, would sell for a paltry sum, but to the 51-year-old database manager it’s a priceless portal to the past.
What’s hot: Mint condition Leicas, especially when rare or unusual.
What’s not: Standard Box Brownies in poor condition.
“It’s my grandfather’s camera. He bought it when he was 16. His hands manipulated the controls. His finger moved on the trigger I’m moving now,” said South. “It’s my last tangible, tactile connection with my grandfather.”
South’s beloved “Gramps”, Edward Simmons, born in 1911, was orphaned by the sinking of the Titanic and his education paid for by the disaster’s charitable trust. From one of his first pay packets as an apprentice upholsterer, Edward — known as Ted — bought the camera mail order from a newspaper advertisement.
“He probably paid quite a lot of money for this camera so he had to have been quite keen on photography and I’ve inherited that from him,” South said.
Ted’s camera is now one of 150 or so vintage models South has restored and maintains in working order at his home near Southampton in southern England.
Clearing out an attic after his grandfather’s death, South found an old shoebox with negatives of shots taken with the 1927 camera. Among them is one of his grandparents, Ted and Lily, on honeymoon, when they asked a passer-by to take their photo.
The shot is displayed online in South’s Living Image museum in which, poignantly, he recounts placing the negative in the camera exactly where “the light from my grandparents had struck it and altered it forever. I do so wish I could shine a light back through that negative, out of the same lens to have them back again.”
Thanks to the popularity of photography and the mass production of cameras in the 20th century, South has built up his pre-digital collection mostly through hand-me-downs or for around £10 ($15) from second-hand shops. “It might cost more to buy film for some than to buy the actual camera,” he said.
Indeed, the market is flooded with vintage cameras, which can sell for near to nothing. “The exciting thing about the camera market is you can go to a car boot sale and get something for £1 or £5 ($1.50 or $8) that’s quite good or spend £100 ($155) on something that’s very good,” said Jon Baddeley, managing director of Bonhams auction house in London.
In Bonhams’ twice-yearly sales in London, and annual sale in Hong Kong, only models worth more than around £1,000 ($1,554) are offered. The biggest sales in the past three years have been to buyers in the Far East, including Taiwan and Hong Kong, said Baddeley, whose next sale in Hong Kong will be on 25 Nov.
By far the most sought-after marque is Leica, he said, followed by Hasselblad, Linhof, Zeiss Ikon and Rollei. Also prized are obscure models such as spy cameras concealed within what looks like a watch or a top hat, among other false fronts. So-called detective cameras are also designed to look like, for instance, a pair of binoculars.
Cameras had to be disguised at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries to allow reportage photography. “It was seen as offensive to go into the street and make photographs of people,” Baddeley explained.
Interesting provenance also adds value. In Hong Kong last year Bonhams sold the Leica III used by a Soviet press agency snapper in World War II to capture the moment in 1945 when the Russians raised their hammer and sickle flag over the Reichstag (German parliament building) in Berlin. “The camera was beaten up and bent but because of its ownership and this particular photograph it achieved HK$1.72m ($221,897).Without that provenance it was worth about £500 ($777),” he said.
A limited edition Leica Luxus with its original crocodile case fetched HK$4.84m ($624,407) in Hong Kong in November 2013. Twelve years earlier it had been valued at between £25,000 and 35,000 ($38,868 and 54,415), Baddeley said.
The focus in this market is on passion, he said, with 95% of high-end sales going to private collectors pursuing an interest, rather than looking for rapid resale value.
Polaroid’s instant gratification
Francis Van Maele, a publisher of screen prints and handmade art books, vividly recalls when he was 10 years old and his father Franz, a textile firm owner, purchased a high quality 110 Polaroid camera. When guests visited their home near Ghent, in Belgium, his dad snapped black-and-white instant portraits for them to take away. “I had to put on the fixation product from left to right with a stick. It had a very special smell which I still remember,” Van Maele, now 68, recalled of helping with the photographs.
When his father died 10 years ago, Van Maele inherited the 1957/58 camera. It’s the oldest model in his collection of around 700. Since he started acquiring them in earnest four years ago, Van Maele has bought around 2,000, selling the remainder through his website Polamad to fund new purchases.
The Polaroid cameras most in demand include iconic models such as the SX-70 and the Land 180 and 195, as well as the 600SE. Least sought after are Highlanders and Pathfinders. Most buyers, Van Maele said, plan to use the cameras. Although Polaroid closed its film factory in 2008, German fans took over production and now a company named The Impossible Project manufactures analog instant film, with prices starting from 16 euros ($17.75).
Today, Van Maele and his partner Hyemee Kim, the artist known as Antic-Ham, use a Big Shot 220mm lens Polaroid to take instant portraits of friends and neighbours who live on the Irish island of Achill. The project, Achill People, mirrors the friendly impulse of Van Maele’s father, more than 50 years ago, to make portraits of the people he meets.
Back to the USSR with Lomo
When students from Vienna happened upon Soviet-made Lomo cameras (produced between 1983 and 2014) at an old camera shop in Prague in 1991, the moody images they produced triggered a cult new art movement called lomography.
Particularly popular today is the Lomo LC-A, which works well even in low light and is used to create atmospheric shots for fashion shoots and weddings. Those made in 1983 now sell for 200 euros to 250 euros, and those from 1984 for 50 euros to 70 euros.
Lomo cameras are among the most popular Soviet camera worldwide, with rarer models changing hands for around $10,000, said Aidas Pikiotas, the author of Epoch of LOMO: Cameras and People. But for Pikiotas, Cold War-era Soviet cameras of all marques bring back memories of when his homeland was part of the USSR.
“I like their design, shutter sound and even their smell. Both metallic and plastic Soviet cameras smell like the past,” said the 44-year-old property businessman by email from Vilnius, Lithuania.
Growing up under the Communist regime, Pikiotas’s first camera, a hand-me-down from his father, was a FED-3 Soviet rangefinder. Later, Pikiotas inherited his grandfather’s early Lubitel. In 1990 Lithuania declared itself independent. Three years later, Pikiotas began scoping flea markets, second-hand shops, fairs and online outlets to put together what is now a collection of around 1,100 FSU (former Soviet Union) cameras, displayed online at Soviet Cams.
His collection includes a Lomo Kompakt-M, which today would change hands for between 300 euros to 400 euros ($270 to $360), he said. Its original price in 1987 was 75 Soviet rubles. At that time, an engineer in the USSR earned about 125 rubles monthly, he added. It’s this window into recent history that fascinates vintage camera collectors of all eras.
Added Pikiotas: “I respect both history and memory a lot! Especially if it’s related to my family so every single item, including cameras, from the past of my family is very meaningful for me and I’m doing my best to preserve it for future generations.”
Got a family heirloom? Share your favourite photos with BBC Capital on Twitter @BBC_Capital or BBC Capital on Facebook.