How can a perfectly nice but seemingly ordinary Leica M3, listed at up to £800, turn out to be a prince of cameras worth a staggering £27,500?
It is a story that starts with the remarkable Robert White, photographic dealer extraordinaire and philanthropist of the first order. Robert, who had built up an extremely successful photographic and internet retail empire from his home town of Poole, Dorset, died ten months ago after a long battle with a rare form of cancer.
His friends knew that he was a keen collector—a magpie of almost everything that took his fancy. His first love was cameras and he would routinely stash away any likely collectible items that crossed his counter over the years. But he was also a rare aficionado of fine watches, Lalique glassware, model steam trains and motorcycles. His outstanding collection of Brough-Superior motorcycles has already been sold to US talk-show host Jay Leno. Even one Brough these days is a significant investment of around £300,000. Robert had a fleet of them.
A week ago, the bulk of his collection—some of his finest watches, cameras and motorcycles—went under the hammer at Bonham’s in London. There were many wonderful items that attracted keen interest with the result that the final tally came to over £3 million, all destined for charity.
But there was one rather humble little Leica M3 that put the cat among the pigeons. This was a perfectly fine body complete with box and documentation, likely to fetch around £800 according to the guide book. The bidding started but soon went way beyond the suggested price. Two clients were soon bidding against one another over the phone. The price climbed steadily and the hammer went in favour of an unknown collector, apparently based in Canada. So how did this apparently humdrum little camera end up at £27,500, including buyer’s premium?
Ivor Cooper of Red Dot Cameras was at the auction and he recounted the story to me. As the auction progressed, none could imagine what the two bidders had seen in a camera that not even the auction house had recognised for what it was.
Ivor got to the bottom of it later. After careful scrutiny of the “blue book”, the 8th Edition Leica Pocket Book, he realised that this M3, serial 1164865, was actually the last one ever produced. The entry is clear: 1164846-1164865 M3 1966. It was the last in the line of arguably the most successful Leica M, the first Leica M, and still regarded as the finest of the lot, with hundreds still in regular use.
So there you have it. Two eagle-eyed collectors out of hundreds of potential bidders had both realised the provenance of this camera. Had it been just one clever soul he could probably have picked up the lot for little more than £1,000. It was the eventual buyer’s misfortune that one other had found the secret.
No one knows if even Robert White knew that he had the last M3 ever made. I like to think he did know; in fact, I would be very surprised if he didn’t.