An extraordinary display of historical cameras
It was a camera lover’s (or seller’s) Eden. I felt it as soon as I walked through the door at Fuller’s Fine Art Auction last weekend and looked right smack into a case of some of the most beautiful cameras I had ever seen.
The shiny teak wood and brass seemed to sparkle under the glare of overhead lights in a case near the front. The cameras were monstrously big (you wonder how anyone was ever able to carry them around and then hoist them on a tripod). As I rounded the corner, I was equally dazzled by glass showcases stacked with shelves of black cameras, some with extended red bellows.
The cameras spanned the history of picture-taking not only in this country but in France, Germany, Japan and Great Britain from the 1880s to the mid-20th century. Some had names that were strangers to me – Sanderson, Gundlach, Ernemann, Pathe, Peckham Wray, Rectaflex – and others were old acquaintances – Kodak, Leica, Ansco, Voigtlander, Graflex.
More than 350 cameras were being sold from the estate of Edward K. Kaprelian, a collector of still and movie cameras, lenses, projectors, books, manuals and just about anything else related to the subject. Kaprelian died in 1997, and his son was liquidating some of his collection, which was expansive after more than 50 years of accumulations.
This was the auction house’s first camera sale, said owner Jeffrey Fuller, whose forte is fine arts, which he’s been selling since 1974 and auctioning for four years. The staff had to do a lot of research on the web, one staffer noted, because some of the cameras were so obscure. They finally found a website of experts who knew cameras.
“I love it. I love looking at it,” said Fuller, who on this day was wearing a colorful crazy quilt of a bow tie. “I have grown attached to the installation.”
Looking at the cameras on the shelves, I could understand why. They were pristine in the cases, and I was impressed. That’s not usually the look of the cameras I see at auction. He and another staffer explained: These were dusty when they were first retrieved, and the staff had to clean them up.
“We’re selling them as objects,” Fuller said, primarily for camera collectors. “They may or may not work.” Some cameras were still in their cases, he said, and others still had film in them (I’ve bought cameras like that before – mostly 35mms that still had batteries in them, a definite no-no).
This grouping was described as the crème de la crème. Next year, about 1,000 cameras and 4,000 volumes of books are scheduled to be sold. “He had everything imaginable,” one staffer told the 25 or so of us in the audience. “All are being catalogued.”
That’s a large haul, so I wondered where Kaprelian kept all of this stuff. On one floor of his home, said auction staffer Gary Pelkey. They were in the same cases that now lined the walls of the auction house. Another staffer mentioned that they were also in the garage and in boxes.
“He would open his garage on Saturdays” and people would bring cameras to sell, according to Pelkey.
Kaprelian was considered an expert on photography and its accoutrements. He was born in 1913 and received a master’s degree in engineering in 1934. After working in Washington, he joined the U.S. Army Signal Corps Engineering Labs in Fort Monmouth, NJ, where he served as chief. The Army in 1945 turned over to him a collection of Carl Zeiss lens that it had retrieved from the Germans. Kaprelian became an expert in Zeiss lens. His collection at auction included a number of them.
He later was hired as chief engineer at the Kalart Co., which manufactured cameras and photography equipment. In the 1960s, he was the deputy in an Army lab called Limited War Laboratory. A 1965 Popular Science magazine article described it as an elite club of scientists who basically spent their time thinking up and developing weaponry and other devices to help fight the Vietnam War.
Kaprelian holds 50 U.S. and foreign patents, ranging from optical and photography to smoke detectors to wound-treatment apparatus for surgery.
In 1985, he catalogued the collection at the Fleetwood Museum in North Plainfield, NJ, that consisted of 800 cameras. According to the museum website, he designed the showcases and the opening display. Like Kaprelian, the museum’s collection appears to be a walk-through history of photography.
At the auction, the Kaprelian cameras were not terribly expensive (even though they pulled in more than I normally pay at auction). Fewer than 20 were sold for more than $500, and many went for less than $200. Near the end, most of the bids were being offered over the internet.
Here are some of the prices and descriptions from the auction catalog. The prices do not include an 18 percent premium:
The most expensive. A Leica 250 Reporter body. An early model FF converted to GG in nickel finish with a top speed of 1/1000 second. Manufactured by Ernst Leitz in Wetzlar, Germany, circa 1934. Includes rare Bakelite body cap. $2,250.
Criterion 8×10 View Camera with T.T. &H. 13-inch Series VI Cooke portrait lens. Manufactured by Gundlach-Optical Co. in Rochester, NY. $850.
Kodak No. 1-A Autographic Junior Camera. Manufactured by Eastman Kodak Co. in Rochester, NY. $10.
Phoenix (Phonix) Tropical Folding Plate Camera with polished teak wood body, brass hardware, Lumar lens and Rulex shutter. Manufactured by Wilhelm Kenngott in Stuttgart, Germany, circa 1924. $275.
Heidoscop Stereo Camera with 3 Carl Zeiss Jena Tessar lenses and leather case. Manufactured by Franke & Heidecke in Braunschweig, Germany. $700.
Rochester Optical Company Premier Box Plate Camera. Manufactured in the USA, circa 1889-1903. $40.
U.S. Army Signal Corps KS-6 (1) Camera Set. Includes a KE-4 70mm Roll Film Camera with 2 Kodak Ektar lenses (102mm and 205mm), flash unit, filters and film in a metal Halliburton case. Manufactured by Graflex Inc. in Rochester, NY (A buyer seated next to me – who bought a whole lotta cameras – said these were hard to sell. “People like them,” he explained, “but they don’t want to pay $2,000 for them.”). $1,200.
Original 1949 Raymond Loewy Associates drawing of a prototype design for a 16mm Victor Movie Camera with related documentation, invoices and correspondence. Raymond Loewy was commissioned by the Victor Animatographic Corp. in Davenport, Iowa, to design a new 16mm motion picture camera. The drawing is colored pencil on paper, matted with an 8-ply mat. It was given to Kaprelian by Morris Schwartz, founder of the Kalart company. $325.
“This belongs in a museum,” one auction staffer said of the drawing. The same was true of many of the items in the sale.