The $15million Leica camera belonged to the man who democratized photography
Vienna-based Leitz Photographic Auctions celebrated 20 years in business this week by selling the inventor of 35mm photography’s camera for €14,400,000 (US$15,147,360), breaking the previous world record for €2,400,000.
Oskar Barnack was only 34 years old when he built, in 1913, what would later become the first commercially successful 35 mm camera, later called Ur-Leica for Ernst Leitz Optische Werke.
Before the Leitz camera entered production in the mid-1920s, almost instantly making 35mm the new standard format for professional photographers, it is believed that around 20 examples of the O series were made. There are only a dozen originals left and when they come up for auction they invariably sell for over a million dollars. The most recent examples before that brought in $2,953,920 (serial number 122), $2,720,304 (serial number 116) and $1,890,108 (serial number 107).
Barnack adapted 35mm motion picture film for use with a camera with a larger negative than other 35mm cameras of the time. The toothed film rolls holding the perforated film allowed for more precision than the typical paper-backed roll film.
Its design was revolutionary because it carried film horizontally, allowing an expanded frame size to 24 x 36 mm with a 2:3 aspect ratio, instead of the 18 x 24 mm cameras which carried film vertically. Negatives of 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 larger format film quality.
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 famous of them all at auction is Man Ray.
Statistically, American Man Ray is now the most valuable photographer in the world. and his work has now elevated him far above 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 “No. 06 Rayograph” from “Champs Délicieux” sold for $126,500 in 1990.
In 1993, ‘Glass Tears’ (1932) sold for $193,895 to give him a second world record, and in 1998, amid a worldwide copyright infringement scandal, ‘Black and White’ (1926 ) sold for $607,500 to give him his third world auction price record.
This award was remarkable in many ways, but most importantly because it was achieved in the months following international news of the greatest photograph counterfeiting scandal in history, and more specifically the massive falsification of the work of Man Ray.
On April 7, 1998, parisian daily The world broke news of a forgery ring that had produced dozens of Man Ray’s photographs, feeding them into the fine art market for two decades. Every valuable newspaper in the world followed the story, and it was slowly but surely smothered and obscured 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: Man Ray’s Fake Prints and Adrian Darmon of ArtCult France also looks into the scandal.
Prints were produced from copies of the original negative plates, sometimes on photographic paper made as recently as the 1980s and 1990s, certificates of authenticity had been issued, sales had been made through dealers reputable and auction houses and the Man Ray scandal rocked art. world like no other before or since.
Many experts believe that ‘dozens’ of fake Man Ray photographs still hang in the world’s finest collections, museums and art galleries…and when the scandal broke, Man Ray set another world record .
“Glass Tears” became the first photograph to sell for over $1 million when San Francisco collector John A. Pritzker paid $1.3 million privately.