$15 million Leica camera was owned by the man who democratized photography

Vienna’s Leitz Photographica Auctions celebrated its 20th year in business this week when it sold the camera of the man who invented 35-mm photography for €14,400,000 (US$15,147,360), smashing the previous world record of €2,400,000.

Oskar Barnack was just 34 years of age when he built, in 1913, what would later become the first commercially successful 35mm still-camera, subsequently called Ur-Leica for Ernst Leitz Optische Werke.

The world record price for a camera passed the $1 million dollar mark in 2011, the $2 million mark in 2012, and went close to cracking the $3 million milestone in 2018. In 2022, this camera raised the bar past $15 million – an astonishing result

Leica

Before the Leitz Camera went into production in the mid-1920s, almost instantly making 35 mm the new standard format for professional photographers, it is thought that around 20 examples of the O-Series were manufactured.

A close up look at Oskar Barnack’s Leica 0-Series No.105

Only a dozen of the originals are extant and when they go to auction, they invariably sell for more than a million dollars. The above video offers wonderful detail of the new record holder.

Watch the hammer fall on a new world record for a camera at auction

For those who wish to see the magical scenes as the hammer fell on a new world record
that was five time greater than any previous price paid for a camera, the above video catches the moment.

The 2018 world record that has just been smashed

The most recent examples of the O-Series at auction prior to this have all fetched world records, with the most recent being Serial Number 122 which fetched a world record €2,400,000 ($2,953,920) on 10 March 2018.

In 2012, this was the world record moment

Prior to the 2018 world record, the previous O-Series to go to auction at Leitz Photographica was Serial Number 116 which fetched a then world record of €2,160,000 ($2,720,304 – see our story covering the event) in 2012, and the year prior (28 May 2011) for €1,320,000 (Serial Number 107).

From the description of Oskar Barnack on his induction into the International Photography Hall of Fame: "He is credited with the making of the very first 35-mm camera. Originally it was considered a 'miniature' camera, and with its high standards and breakthrough technology, it was the 'quintessential miniature camera', according to historian Robert Hirsch. He wrote, 'it was not only smaller and lighter than other hand-held cameras, but it utilized inexpensive standard movie stock, letting a photographer rapidly and unobtrusively make 36 exposures without reloading. Faster, high-definition, interchangeable lenses and a built-in coupled rangefinder followed.'"

From the description of Oskar Barnack on his induction into the International Photography Hall of Fame: “He is credited with the making of the very first 35-mm camera. Originally it was considered a ‘miniature’ camera, and with its high standards and breakthrough technology, it was the ‘quintessential miniature camera’, according to historian Robert Hirsch. He wrote, ‘it was not only smaller and lighter than other hand-held cameras, but it utilized inexpensive standard movie stock, letting a photographer rapidly and unobtrusively make 36 exposures without reloading. Faster, high-definition, interchangeable lenses and a built-in coupled rangefinder followed.'”

Leica

Barnack adapted 35-mm cinematic film for still camera use with a larger negative than other 35-mm cameras of the time. The pronged-film rollers holding the perforated film allowed more precision than typical paper-backed roll film.

Leitz Photographica (formerly WestLicht Photographica) is quite clearly the world's premier vintage camera auction house. Links to all of these cameras are available at NewAtlas.com

Leitz Photographica (formerly WestLicht Photographica) is quite clearly the world’s premier vintage camera auction house. Links to all of these cameras are available at NewAtlas.com

NewAtlas.com

His design was revolutionary because he transported the film horizontally, allowing an extended frame size to 24 x 36 mm with a 2:3 aspect ratio, instead of the 18 x 24 mm of cameras that carried the film vertically. Negatives in this small format could be enlarged to obtain sharper positive images. For this to be effective, the camera also needed a high-quality lens capable of producing the larger format film’s quality.

A who’s who of the world’s photographers used Leica

Many of the world’s greatest photographers have used the Leica, with names such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Aleksander Rodchenko, Ilse Bing, Lee Miller, Robert Doisneau, Arthur Rothstein, Helmut Newton, Diane Arbus and Georgia O’Keeffe among the ranks, but certainly the most celebrated of all, and particularly at auction, is Man Ray.

Between the wars, Man Ray partied endlessly in Montparnesse (Paris) which was a global hot spot of new thought and night life. His friends in the local bars included Salvador Dali, Marcel Duchamp, Pablo Picasso, Gertrude Stein, Marcel Proust, Ernest Hemingway, André Gide, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Alexander Calder, James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, Eugène Atget, Erik Satie, Jean Cocteau, André Breton and his legendary muse, Kiki de Montparnasse. Like all great photographers, he was primarily an artist, and though he achieved fame as a photographer, it was recognition for his art that he wanted most. That's Man Ray on the right, and a young Salvador Dali at left.

Between the wars, Man Ray partied endlessly in Montparnesse (Paris) which was a global hot spot of new thought and night life. His friends in the local bars included Salvador Dali, Marcel Duchamp, Pablo Picasso, Gertrude Stein, Marcel Proust, Ernest Hemingway, André Gide, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Alexander Calder, James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, Eugène Atget, Erik Satie, Jean Cocteau, André Breton and his legendary muse, Kiki de Montparnasse. Like all great photographers, he was primarily an artist, and though he achieved fame as a photographer, it was recognition for his art that he wanted most. That’s Man Ray on the right, and a young Salvador Dali at left.

Statistically, American Man Ray is now the world’s most valuable photographer. and his work has now elevated him well beyond all others. He protested that the quality of the camera didn’t matter, but he used a Leica.

He set his first world record price for a photograph when his “n°06 Rayograph” from “Champs Délicieux” sold for $126,500 in 1990.

Selling for $607,500 at Christie's New York on 5 October 1998, this print of "Noire at Blanche" (1926) by Man Ray, set a new world record for a photograph, raising the previous record of $398,500 set by an Alfred Stieglitz image of his wife (Georgia O'Keeffe: A Portrait -- Hands and Thimble (1920)) by more than 50 percent. The record would last just a year.

Selling for $607,500 at Christie’s New York on 5 October 1998, this print of “Noire at Blanche” (1926) by Man Ray, set a new world record for a photograph, raising the previous record of $398,500 set by an Alfred Stieglitz image of his wife (Georgia O’Keeffe: A Portrait — Hands and Thimble (1920)) by more than 50 percent. The record would last just a year.

In 1993, “Glass Tears” (1932) sold for $193,895 to give him a second world record, and in 1998, in the midst of a global forgery scandal of his photographs, “Noire et Blanche” (1926) sold for $607,500 to give him his third world auction price record .

The first photograph to sell for more than a million USD, Man Ray's "Glass Tears" (1932) was sold in New York's Pace McGill Gallery (now Pace Gallery) during 1999.

The first photograph to sell for more than a million USD, Man Ray’s “Glass Tears” (1932) was sold in New York’s Pace McGill Gallery (now Pace Gallery) during 1999.

This price was remarkable in many ways but mostly because it was achieved in the months following international news of the biggest photography forgery scandal in history, and specifically about the mass forgery of Man Ray’s work.

On 7 April 1998, Paris daily newspaper Le Monde broke the news of a counterfeiting ring that had produced scores of Man Ray photographs, feeding them into the fine art marketplace over two decades. Every newspaper of worth in the world followed the story, and it was slowly but surely smothered and obfuscated and even two decades later, no-one is quite sure what happened.

Some suggested reading on the subject: Intrigue in the World of Photography II: The Fake Man Ray Prints and ArtCult France’s Adrian Darmon also weighs in on the scandal.

The prints were produced from copies of the original negative plates, sometimes on photographic paper manufactured as recently as the 1980s and 1990s, certificates of authenticity had been issued, sales had been made through reputable dealers and at auction and the Man Ray scandal rocked the art world like no other before or since. Not only did this damage lots of credibility and trust, it highlighted photography’s greatest weakness at auction – if supply can be increased arbitrarily, then its scarcitry and value cannot be relied upon and it is a dubious investment mathematically.

But such is the power of Man Ray’s work, it not only retained its value, it set another world record. Economic levitation!

Many experts believe that “scores” of forged Man Ray photographs are hanging in the finest collections, museums and art galleries in the world still … and as the scandal broke open, Man Ray set another world record.

These days the world’s most successful photographers at auction are masters of inventory control and the “limited edition” model of fixed scarcity, but 100 years ago, artists were responsible for their own survival and it was that poor administration of Man Ray’s body of work that was exploited by the forgers.

His most recent world record is thoroughly deserved, but it is high time the art world began to seek a better definition of what a photograph is.

With four photographs having set world auction records, and “Glass Tears” acknowledged as the first photograph to sell for more than a million dollars (when San Francisco collector John A. Pritzker paid $1.3 million privately in 1999), Man Ray’s success at auction defies the odds. These works were photographs

The photography world changed on February 19, 1990 though, and some people still haven’t acknowledged that.

That was the day that Photoshop was released. – for photographers, Photoshop enabled a direct link between the captured image and art – with manipulation tools that Man Ray might have dreamed of when he was producing his Rayographs (photographs without a camera).

Man Ray produced photographs with his imagination just as Andy Warhol manipulated celebrity imagery

The Brigitte Bardot Experiment

Both of these artworks sold at a Sotheby's Evening Sale in London on 22 May 2012 as consecutive lots (#12 and #13)

Both of these artworks sold at a Sotheby’s Evening Sale in London on 22 May 2012 as consecutive lots (#12 and #13)

Sotheby’s

If you were designing an experiment to determine the value of celebrity, Sotheby’s and Gunther Sachs provided that a decade ago with the above scenario – which effectively cancelled out most of the variables that confuse the auction value equation – the same place, the same time, the same audience, the same auctioneer, the same auction house and the same image … just different names.

At left is a portrait of Brigitte Bardot by Richard Avedon. It is entitled “Brigitte Bardot, Hair by Alexandre, Paris Studio, 1959” and described in the catalogue as “Gelatin silver print, signed and numbered 6/35 in felt-tip pen in the lower margin.” It measures 61 by 50.5 cm (24 by 19 7/8 inches), and it was photographed in 1959 and printed at a later date, and on the reverse there’s also a stamp that reads “This photograph may not be reproduced without written permission of Richard Avedon.”

The image at right, is entitled “Brigitte Bardot” by Andy Warhol, it was “executed in 1974” and is described as an “acrylic and silkscreen ink on canvas”, and it measures 120 by 120 cm (48 by 48 inches). The image at left sold for GBP £145,250 (USD $229,030) and the image at right sold for £3,009,250 ($4,744,985).

Avedon and Warhol were friends and there is no doubt the Warhol work was done with his blessing, but … (to be continued)