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Going, going, gone. A guide to buying at a camera auction

Going, going, gone. A guide to buying at a camera auction - Auctions, intimidating or fun? Find out how we got on at our first trip to a Christie's camera auction in London.
Words Tim Goldsmith, Photographs Christie's

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Category : Collecting
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Christie's

Last summer I found myself in central London on the same day as one of Christie's camera auctions. As an avid camera collector and one with a fascination for local auctions, I couldn't resist the temptation of my first visit a major auction house and decided to go along for the afternoon session.

As usual, most Christie's auctions are split into two sessions. The morning session runs from 11.00 to 13.00 and is normally taken up with Leica cameras and accessories, plus Leica copies etc. The afternoon session is for general items, both usable and collectable and starts at 14.00. The auction usually ends at around 16.30pm.

I must admit to feeling a little nervous as I pushed open the door to the South Kensington auction rooms - this is a serious place after all. A place where famous paintings and other works of art have sold for the sort of prices mere mortals can only dream of. I don't mind admitting that I was feeling slightly intimidated at the prospect of being there.

I asked at the enquiry desk where the camera auction was taking place and was told that I should register first at the desk just around the corner. I collected an auction catalogue and, still nervous I approached the registration desk. Here I was immediately put at my ease by the greeting I received from the two receptionists.

'Good afternoon Sir. Have you ever registered with Christie's before, or requested a catalogue?' the first receptionist asked, reaching for her computer mouse.

Leica M6I told her I hadn't and was handed a bidder's form to fill out. This was a fairly simple affair consisting of name, address and a few other details. I was allocated a bidders number and told the camera auction was taking place in a room to the rear of the building. As I turned round and started to follow the signs I almost immediately found myself passing through an auction of paintings and watercolours. Not wishing to be rude and walk through whilst a lot was being sold, I waited a few seconds for the lot to finish.

'Sixty pounds then.' I heard the auctioneer say. 'Are you all done at sixty pounds? Sold then, at sixty pounds.' I was feeling much more confident now, as apparently even I could afford to come to Christie's and buy a painting!

I made my way though to the rear sales room and entered a large, open space lined with glass display cabinets all around the room. As many of these cases were empty I guessed they had held the items from the earlier session since once a lot has been paid for, at the window just outside the room, you are free to take your new purchases away.

Nikon rangefinderThe centre of the room contained rows of chairs with the audience of around 40 people facing the auctioneer on his rostrum. I was surprised to find that I knew almost half of the audience, either by name or sight, the majority being either private dealers or owners of shops specialising in classic or collectable cameras.

Each side of the auctioneer was a large TV screen that showed a digital picture of the lot currently for sale, so you always know exactly where you are. I soon realised that although many of the lots were made up of more than one piece of equipment, usually only a single item was shown on the screen. Although there was a full description in the catalogue you could not really tell the condition of every item just from the pictures. As with any auction the only way to buy in confidence is to leave plenty of time before the sale (which I hadn't) to thoroughly view anything of interest.

auction camerasAnother surprise was the number of lots that contained multiple items, some even consisting of one or two boxes full of equipment. Most of these lots were sold for amounts at the higher range of the catalogue estimates, and sometimes nearly double the guide price. As many of these lots were brought by the same two or three bidders I soon worked out that this is where many camera dealers come to buy their stock.

The auctioneer was already up to lot number 295, the start of the Medium Format section, when I sat down. Interestingly a good number of these lots were perfectly usable cameras and mostly sold at realistic prices. The stars of this section were lots 322 and 323, the two Linhof Super Technika outfits. These sold for 2,400 and 1,400 against estimates of 700-1,000 and 500-800 respectively.

Linhof As the cameras in this section were not really my cup of tea, I concentrated on the way the auctioneer handled the bids. I soon got into the rhythm of the bidding with items increasing in relatively small increments up to 100, then increasing in price by as much as 50 a time for the more expensive lots. As with all auctions, you needed to be quick if you want to bid for anything. Although the auctioneer usually gave plenty of notice that an item was about to be 'knocked down', I could tell from the reaction of some bidders that they had lost something they had been after. This was occasionally compounded by the talking coming from a few less thoughtful members of the audience.

MinoxThe auction continued through the next 30 or so items, several of which were sold via a member of Christie's staff taking calls from telephone bidders. All was going quite smoothly until lot 326, a Deardoff half-plate camera, was reached. There was no estimate in the catalogue for this lot which means that it was not expected to sell for more than 200. After a few seconds of bidding 280 was reached and after a suitable period the hammer was brought down and the lot was sold. There was then some frantic gesturing from the telephone bidders area as apparently the auctioneer had missed their bid. This item was then re-auctioned and went on the sell to the telephone bidder for a princely 650 (nearly 750 after the buyers premium had been added). I'm glad it wasn't me who thought they had bought it for 280!

In fact I failed to get the lot I was really after, a large collection of original makers catalogues mainly from 1910-1920. These finally sold for 520 (estimate 200-400), nevertheless by the end of the auction I had thoroughly enjoyed myself and would recommend you pay Christie's a visit.

Follow this link to the Christie's web site with extensive and fully searchable details of both forthcoming auctions and results from this and previous auctions http://www.christies.com.

The top 10 prices (Including Buyers Premium) realised at the auction I attended
 
Lot Description Estimate Price () Price ($)
167 Nikon SP 2,000-3,000 5,052 $7,492
131 Leica M6 Post 1,200-1,800 3,760 $5,576
270 Minox (Riga) 1,000-1,500 2,820 $4,182
322 Super Technika outfit 700-1,000 2,820 $4,182
232 Contarex equipment 2,000-2,500 2,585 $3,834
132 Leica M6 TTL 600-1,000 2,350 $3,485
330 Gandolfi outfit 1,500-2,500 1,880 $2,788
263 Compass II 1,500-2,000 1,762 $2,613
134 Leica outfit 1,000-1,500 1,762 $2,613
110 Leica M3 1,000-1,500 1,645 $2,440

Comment from Michael Pritchard, Head of Cameras, Director, Christie's South Kensington 'With prices hotter than London's summer, today's auction saw strong prices for 35mm Subminiature and wooden cameras. A Nikon SP realised 5,052, considerably in excess of the pre-sale estimate, while a rare pre-war Minox camera, the classic spy camera, sold for 2,820. We look forward to our next sale which will include further examples across these areas.'

Lot numbers illustrated (from top) 131, 167, 263, 272 & 323.

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Comments


Shcokete 3 32
14 Dec 2011 5:23PM
Christie's charge the seller 20% and the buyer 20%, that is 400 for every 1000 of value ; nice business to be in. [I shall stick with the PCCGB!]

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