Famous historical Australian camera collection goes under the hammer

Author: Richard Brewster | Posted: 1st August, 2022

Michaels Cameras – forced to close last year because of the adverse economic impact COVID-19 has inflicted on Australia – is now selling its comprehensive camera collection through Leski Auctions from 6pm Tuesday August 9 at 727-729 High Street, Armadale.

The premises, on the corner of Melbourne CBD's Elizabeth and Lonsdale Streets, housed the world’s largest private camera museum containing more than 3000 items.

Established in 1916 by the current generation’s (that includes brothers Tony and Peter) great-grandfather Emanuel as a pawnbroker and gunsmith, the business under the guidance of his son Harold evolved into a chemist that also sold photographic equipment.

By the late 1970s, Michaels was taking unusual and interesting cameras as trade-ins for newer and more sophisticated equipment.

Realising that their business was becoming a repository of photographic history – not adequately preserved in Australia – Tony and his father Alan decided to conserve, display and actively expand the evolving collection.

To do this, they began attending auctions and swap meets and buying from private collections until housing all the cameras became a real challenge.

About the same time, their efforts were given a major boost when a die-hard German-manufactured Leica camera collector approached Alan to take on his entire collection.  

Open to national and international enthusiasts, historical societies and curators, the subsequently created museum became famous for never duplicating its collection – even though sometimes the difference between camera models might have been ever so slight.

From the opening lot, the auction represents a significant walk down memory lane with a circa 1890 full plate field camera by W. Watson & Sons up for grabs.

A magic lantern (lot 4), entitled the ‘Praestantia’ by Riley Brothers of Bradford, is another fascinating historical item not to be missed.

Some of the early black and white silent movies spring to mind when viewing the circa 1907 Royal Mail Panel Camera Model III for copying cabinet portraits (lot 18) with plenty of other photographic gear of the era at affordable estimates to go under the hammer.

The camera with the highest catalogue estimate of $60,000-$80,000 is a circa 1973 Red Flag 20 (Hong Qi 20) Shanghai No. 2 Camera Factory copy of the Leica M4 (lot 112) made on the orders of Chinese Communist Party founding leader Mao Tze Dong’s last wife, Chiang Ching. Fewer than 200 of these Chinese copies were ever produced.  

Leica cameras feature prominently in the auction with a Leica I Model B with Compur dial set shutter (lot 42) a good example and carrying a $12,000-$15,000 catalogue estimate.

Another is a Leica I Model B Compur Rim Set Shutter camera (lot 44) at $10,000-$12,000.

A 1943 Leica 250 Reporter (GG) 35mm Rangefinder model (lot 74) is another attraction along with a 1979 Leica M4-2 Gold Plated Special Edition (lot 119).

Only a limited edition of 1000 of this latter model were released to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Oskar Barnack, inventor of the first commercially successful 35mm still camera subsequently called Ur-Leica at the manufacturing Leitz factory in Wetzlar, Germany.

Intriguing is the 1992 24-carat gold plated miniature replica Leica UR (lot 127) with its original box and certificate of authenticity.

Other interesting items include an 1898 Leitz Wetzlar lacquered brass and steel microscope (lot 219) made for Kilpatrick & Co in Melbourne in its original numbered lockable timber case and a 1937 Canon Hansa 35mm rangefinder camera (lot 227).

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