Chinese join the wave of Leica collectors

Updated: 2013-07-18 05:46

By Deng Zhangyu (China Daily)

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Since its birth 100 years ago, German camera Leica has been wooed by collectors and fans from Europe, the US and Japan. Chinese collectors have recently jumped on the bandwagon, with their favorite being vintage Leica to make up for the missing years.

In June, Hong Kong-based L&H Auction held a photographic auction for the growing collection market from the Chinese mainland. A custom-made M6 camera for the Brunei sultan's 50th birthday was sold at a hammer price with commission of HK$4.47 million ($576,231) to a collector from the mainland.

"In the past seven years, the number of Chinese Leica buyers has been spiraling upwards. Many of the record hammer prices are offered by buyers from the Chinese mainland," says Henry Chau, president of L&H Auction.

Online photographic auction websites used to have only English and Japanese languages. Many have added the Chinese language.

It cannot be denied that Leica collectors are mainly from the US and Europe because of their long history, but Chinese collectors are catching up.

Chau has been a fan and collector of Leica since he was young. For him, a vintage Leica is more than a camera. It's a sophisticated artwork and yet still has the ability of taking good quality photos.

"When I click the shutter, the sound is crisp. I love it," says Chau. He uses his Leica cameras every day, to have a fuller enjoyment from his collection.

Like in collecting paintings and antiques, Hong Kong and Taiwan are well ahead of the Chinese mainland in vintage Leica collection.

Chau says collectors in Hong Kong are planning to build a Leica museum. And in Taiwan, Barry Lam, who is the biggest collector of Chinese painter Zhang Daqian's works, has the most Leica cameras.

Photographer Tian Zhili from Beijing also loves the crisp clicks of vintage Leicas. Tian calls himself a "big fan" rather than a collector, boasting a selection of about 40 Leica cameras and accessories.

"Camera is a man's big toy. But Germany has made its camera into an industrial revolution classic. That's what we lack. We haven't experienced the industrial revolution. We admire the classic and the spirit of that period," says Tian.

The first Leica collectors in China started their connection with the luxury camera in the 1970s. Most were photographers with the military or State-owned newspapers.

In the 1980s, Tian bought his first camera - Chinese brand Seagull - with a price seven times his monthly pay, at 300 yuan. At that time, people had to go abroad to buy a Leica camera and pay over 5,000 yuan for an M6 Leica camera without a lens. That was a huge sum of money.

It was not until 2004 that Tian could afford an M6 Leica camera. After having one, Tian could not stop buying. Once he was told by a friend that his Japanese friend had brought a vintage Leica lens to Shanghai. He immediately flew to Shanghai from Beijing and bought the lens at the airport.

"Every part of the camera is of the highest quality. Its compactness and classical design makes it hard to beat," says Tian.

When the Leica camera was first produced in 1913, made-in-Germany equaled low quality and low price. After World War II, the sophistication and strict style turned German products into classics.

"We are charmed by the stories behind Leica and its spirit, from ordinary to classical," says Tian.

"Chinese people were too poor to appreciate the creations of the industrial revolution. Now we have money and time to discover the part we have missed out."

Tian says the Leica camera intrigues Chinese collectors because of its long history. Many historical moments were captured by photographers who used Leica, such as the V-J Day in Times Square when an American sailor kissed a young woman as people turned up on the streets to celebrate the victory of World War II.

There are always celebrities among the list of Leica users including Queen Elizabeth II, Dwight David Eisenhower and photojournalist Alfred Eisenstaedt. Since 2006, Chinese names joined the list. They include the country's first space traveler Yang Liwei.

"Leica now produces digital lens reflex cameras. But for collectors, the most valuable ones are always those classical 35-mm cameras," Tian says.

Chinese join the wave of Leica collectors

Two vintage Leica cameras are displayed at an exhibition held by L&H Auction in Beijing.
Jiang Dong/China Daily

Chinese join the wave of Leica collectors

The custommade M6 camera for the sultan of Brunei’s 50th birthday is an important exhibit of the show. Provided to China Daily

(China Daily USA 07/17/2013 page9)