Home Cameras/Lenses Leica Robert White: Collector of Leicas, motorcycles and a philanthropist

Robert White: Collector of Leicas, motorcycles and a philanthropist

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 A 1935 Brough Superior taken with a 1935 Leica III, two of Robert White
A 1935 Brough Superior taken with a 1935 Leica III, two of Robert White’s greatest passions. Stock photograph by Mike Evans

Robert White, who died last November, was a collector. You name it, he collected it. He had motorcycles, Leicas, Lalique, rare watches and other art, Moulton bicycles and almost anything that caught his eye. Now, after his death from a rare form of cancer at the early age of 62, he is seen as a philanthropist of the first order.

He started as a small-time photographic dealer in Poole, Dorset. But by a combination of astute management and a canny talent for property investment, he ended his life as a multi millionaire. In his Will he donated more than £10m to Poole NHS hospital, where he received treatment for his illness, and his extensive camera collection has been donated to Southampton University.

 Jay Leno with Robert White (Bonhams)
Jay Leno with Robert White (Bonhams)

From his small beginnings in Poole he went on to head one of the country’s largest and most successful photographic wholesalers and retailers, representing many brands including Leica and Voigtländer.

His expanding property empire enabled him to indulge in his passion for collecting. Any interesting Leica that came over the counter for part exchange went into the collection instead of being sold on. He loved bicycles, Moulton was his favourite, and he had a supreme passion for motorcycles.

When he died he had one of Britain’s largest collections of Brough-Superior motorcycles, in addition to much else. Brough was the iconic 1930s brand developed by George Brough and was regarded as the Rolls Royce of motorcycles. It was a Brough, one of his eight, on which T.E.Lawrence (of Arabia) was killed in 1935.

To own one Brough these days is an achievement and a considerable investment, starting at around £300,000. But Robert had a fleet of them. Before he died he sold them to his friend, the American talk-show host Jay Leno who is himself a collector on a massive scale. This alone raised £3.5m and a forthcoming auction of the other bikes, vintage cars and other items is expected to raise a further £3m.

I never met Robert, although I had dealt with his business on many occasions, but my photographer friend George James lived nearby and knew him well over many years. He tells me how Robert’s camera store in Poole had a club-like atmosphere and he would go along regularly on Saturdays for a coffee and chat. He shared Robert’s passion for Leicas and, also, for Moultons. Before Robert’s death George bought one of his prized Moultons which he now happily rides around for forest roads near his home.

The Robert White Collection is to be auctioned at Bonhams on 19 September. All proceeds will go to charity. Visit this link to read more and to order a catalogue.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Really enjoyed this post about Robert White. I sold my father’s Leica for £80 when I left England in 1999. I wonder what model it was. Vry battered with a damaged lens.

    • Glad you liked the story Hebe. It’s difficult to say just what camera your father had, but I imagine it was an old Leica, perhaps one he had in Shanghai before the war? If so, it would have been a Leica II or III. If so, bearing in mind the condition, £80 sounds a reasonable price for 1999. It would today be worth about £200, without the lens.

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