This past holiday weekend, while most of us stateside were recovering from turkey overload and Black Friday battle wounds, the WestLicht photographic auction house in Austria announced that it has sold what may be the world’s most expensive production camera. At 1.68 million euros ($2.19 million), it’s no surprise that the camera, an M3D rangefinder from 1955, was made by Leica, a company renowned for its lenses and craftsmanship that still makes some of the most expensive shooters today.
The M3D fetched the price thanks in part to the history surrounding it. It was one of only four ever made, and was owned by famed LIFE magazine photographer David Douglas Duncan. According to WestLicht, Duncan used the camera from 1955 until recently in 2007, documenting everything from the Vietnam War to his friendship with artist Pablo Picasso.
The M3D wasn’t the only Leica at the auction to ring up a huge payday. There was a gold-plated 1929 Leica Luxus that sold for nearly 1.02 million euros; the first serially produced Leica M3 from 1953 (owned by Willi Stein, the chief design engineer of Leica predecessor, Leitz) for 900,000 euros; and three Leica MP models owned by photographer Paul Fusco for 858,000 euros.
None of these Leicas topped the amount of the most expensive camera, however. That honor still goes to a 1923 prototype made by, you guessed it, Leica, which commanded 2.16 million euros (nearly $2.8 million) at a WestLicht auction earlier this year. That camera, a Leica 0-series, was one of 12 surviving models and a prototype to the Leica A. The company can also lay claim to having made the most expensive lens, a one-off custom jumbo telephoto made for a Qatari prince who paid more than $2 million.
If you are wondering why Leica cameras are such luxury items, think of the products as finely crafted goods rather than mass-produced commodities, like a Montblanc fountain pen versus a BIC disposable. They have tank-like construction with high-grade components, and feel solid in the hands. (You can watch the lengths Leica went to in creating a special edition Leica M9-P in collaboration with fashion house Hermès.) There is a long history that is associated with the brand, and there’s a certain cache that comes with using one, too. Considering that photographer Duncan used his for more than 50 years, they will probably outlast the plastic camera in the superstore bargain bin easily. They don’t necessarily make the best cameras nor will using one make you a better photographer, but Leica obviously has a following that will gladly pay a good sum for one; whether you should become one of the following depends on how you view electronics, either as heirlooms or replaceable.
These rare, million-dollar Leica products probably cost slightly more than what your holiday budget allows, but Leica offers several models in its current digital camera lineup that are slightly more accessible and less pricey, but by no means cheap. If you desire the Leica technology without paying the price, look into Panasonic’s Lumix digital cameras, many of which utilize optics that conform to Leica’s standards.
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