The Rare Leica Camera That Smashed Auction Records

Top view of Leica 0-Series no.105, one of 23 prototypes that preceded the commercial release of the first Leitz 35 mm camera. (all images courtesy Leica Camera Classics)

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but that pales in comparison to a camera worth over $15 million. That’s the new world record for the sale of a camera, set this summer at the Leitz Photographica Auction, when a Leica 0-Series No. 105 hammered for €14.4 million (about $15,151,847 at the time of the June 11 sale).

The auction takes place twice a year and is considered among the world’s largest and most renowned for vintage cameras and other optical equipment through its association with the Leitz Camera. Known colloquially as Leicas, the Leitz Camera was the world’s first 35mm camera, and vintage models are eminently collectible as artifacts of modern photography. However, the Leica that broke auction records in June was something extra special — one of roughly 22 models in the prototype “0-Series” produced by Ernst Leitz, the camera’s inventor, before it went into wide release in the mid-1920s.

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The camera, estimated to fetch between €2–3 million, shattered estimates and records.

Further enhancing the provenance of the nearly 100-year-old camera was its association with a prominent previous owner, Oskar Barnack. Barnack was an inventor and German photographer who designed the so-called “Liliput camera” in 1913, establishing a prototype for what would later become the first commercially successful 35mm still camera at Ernst Leitz Optische Werke in Wetzlar, Germany. Barnack used the 0-Series 105 to capture moments from his family life and applied the experience he gained in the process to further develop the camera for consumer use. His name is engraved on the top of the viewfinder of No. 105, making it a truly unique item, steeped many times over in the origins of modern photography.

The camera was once owned by Oskar Barnack, who helped develop the Leitz Camera for consumer use.

But while the special nature of the camera drew auction predictions of €2,000,000 to 3,000,000, it seemed no one was prepared to see it draw nearly five times the high estimate by hammer drop. Previously, the most expensive camera in the world — also an 0-Series, serial number 122 — was sold at the 32nd Westlicht camera auction in Vienna, Austria, in 2018 for $2.96 million.

The tremendous price achieved by No. 105 underlines “the interest in historically significant objects from the world of photography, which has been continuously increasing for years,” according to Alexander Sedlak, Managing Director of Leica Camera Classics.

You gotta like-a that Leica!

Obviously, Leicas also have a long and symbiotic relationship with photography as an art form. Photojournalist Henri Cartier-Bresson, who famously said “the camera is an extension of the eye,” extended his eye through a 35mm Leica. William Eggleston was also a fan, amassing some 300 Leicas in his personal collection. From the candid career of Bruce Davidson to the studio arsenal of Annie Leibovitz‘s highly structured shoots, Leicas have helped shape the last century of commercial, hobbyist, and fine art photography.

The identity of the buyer remains undisclosed, but whoever they are, they showed their dedication to owning a piece of photographic history.


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