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'Spy' cameras to be sold at Bonhams auction

'Spy' cameras to be sold at Bonhams auction - Sale of rare American collection of photographic equipment and related items includes two of earliest covert cameras, dating from 1890's

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The collection of the late Malibu-based Paul Tobias, who died tragically last year in a plane crash, will be sold at Bonhams' salerooms in Knowle, near Birmingham.

Both 'spy' cameras (Lots 114 and 116) were made by the German manufacturer C P Stirn and are expected to fetch 1,100-1,400 and 700-900 respectively. The more valuable of the two, Lot 114, is a Stirn Concealed Vest camera, which measures six inches in diameter and takes just six 4cm diameter exposures.

Although detectives may have used the cameras for covert operations, it is far more likely they were manufactured in the Edwardian era for photographers to take candid camera shots of people in public situations. Whilst it was widely accepted to have one's portrait photographed in a studio, it was deemed inappropriate and impolite for one to be caught on camera in the street. Therefore, the camera would have been worn under the vest and photographs taken in secret.

The camera's body is made of nickel plated brass and still has its original neck cord and the very rare polished mahogany box, only supplied to certain overseas markets, which also enabled the camera to be fixed on a tripod.

Stirn's Vest camera was granted British and continental patents on 27 July 1886 and the camera was manufactured from October 1886, being developed from the original, invented by R D Gray who demonstrated the first version of his camera in December 1885.

The second 'spy' camera, Lot 116, is a disc-shaped, nickel-plated Vest camera, introduced on the market in 1896. It is engraved stamped with 'Stirn's Phographisch Camera' and 'Patentees Agents J. Robinson & Sons 172 Regent St; London & Dublin' and would have been used by its owner, concealed under a waistcoat with the lens protruding through a button-hole. This example is the rarer larger No. 2 model, with the shutter operated by a string pull. It takes six pictures, approx 2.4 inches (60mm) diameter on a 6.1/4 inch (16cm) diameter plate. The camera is presented with a leather ever ready carrying case, also stamped with Robinson's details and its strap.

Paul Tobias's collection covered all aspects of photographic development from the very primitive cameras of the early 19th century through to modern equipment of the 1950s. His tastes were eclectic and he brought together cameras that not only represent technological advancements, but also those evolving in aesthetic design. Indeed, many of the cameras in the collection are of museum quality.

His passion for collecting did not stop at cameras - many fine examples of magic lanterns can also be found in the sale. Evidence of the magic lantern - a type of slide projector - can be found as early as the 16th century, but its popularity didn't peak until the 19th century. Travelling entertainers would put on shows and exhibitions around the country, and as they attracted new audiences, churches acquired examples to educate their parishioners with biblical stories and wealthy Victorians bought them to provide home entertainment for their children and friends.

Bonhams will sell examples of both the full size adult version and the decorative toy lanterns from The Paul Tobias Collection.

Other early material to be offered includes two lots of early pornography. Tame by today's standards the stereo daguerreotypes of female nudes would have titivated Victorian male society in private. Lot 52 shows a nude lady seated by a table and is expected to fetch 700-1200. Lot 53 shows a 3D effect of a naked woman holding a rose which is estimated at 1,600-2,000.

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