I decided I needed to document my thought process on buying vintage cameras, specifically along the Leica lines. Regular readers know I go through a lot of cameras, trying them out to see if they are for me, then selling them off if they are not. In the past, I have purchased the 1950 Rolleiflex, 1959 Hasselblad 500c, 2012 Carl Zeiss Ikon, 1958 Leica M2 and I am currently waiting on a 1961 Leica M3 being refurbished and CLA'd by Youxin Ye. (Not to mention the piles of vintage glass I have bought and sold over the years.)
For the purpose of this article, I am only looking into the meter-less M3, M2 and M4 (not the M4-2/P). The later film M's (5, 6, 7 and MP) are also not considered here. For me, the "classic" M-Leica's were the M3, M2 and M4 proper. Many swear by the M6 and MP (out of my league), of course, but I had decided they are not for me. The M5 was poorly made by Leica standards, and I feel the M4-2 and M4-P are subpar to the M4. As many will tell you though, there are no bad Leica's - so keep that in mind too.
Learning about Serials
There is so much buzz out there about models and the serial numbers attached to them. There is a lot to this, as some have different options based on year - and as you'll see, serial numbers cross many models. I use the Camera Quest site to get an idea when the camera was actually built, then correlate that too what was good/bad about those years. But for a brief history, here's a very high level run-down of model, years, viewfinder stats and serial start numbers to approximate end.
- M3 - 1954-1966 (.91 viewfinder - 50, 90, 135) 700,000-1,164,865
- M2 - 1958-1967 (.72 viewfinder - 35, 50, 90) 926.001-1,165,000
- M4 - 1967-1975 (.72 viewfinder- 35, 50, 90, 135) 1,175,001-1,443,170
There are far too many variations to go into here, but some options / variations to consider when comparing and contrasting your purchase:
- Frame Selector Lever - added in 1955 to the M3 serial 785,801 and up.
- DS - Double Stroke - Original M3's started with the double stroke
- SS - Single Stroke - 1958 M3 serial 919,251 and all later models
- Button Rewind - Early M2's had a button rewind (to release the spool) and no self-timer. M2 serials 947,501 and up were updated to have a lever release and timer.
- Black Paint - The M2/M3 mainly came in chromed brass. Only a handful of black paint variations were ever released.
Post 1,000,000 Serials Worth More
That's a myth. People will try to charge you more, saying Leica was at the peak of their craftsmanship, but that is complete hogwash. In my research, I was considering the full span of 1954-1975 serials.
Are you looking for a trophy piece or something to use and abuse? For me, this is a tool for the street, not my shelf. I just wanted my Leica's to work and feel right - so nicks, scrapes and dings didn't come into consideration, but when looking at vintage cameras you may want to consider this at time of sale. You may be looking for a beater to restore yourself, or you may be looking for a mint fully restored camera. Prices really vary depending on this as well. Here are some things to consider:
- CLA (Clean, Lube, Adjust) - you can have a local (trusted) shop do this in the $100-$200 range.
- Black Repaint - A popular thing to do with these old Leica's is to get them repainted. I was really interested in this as well - but boy, does this pack on a premium price. An M3 in chrome, no CLA goes for $500-$700. If it's been repainted, you suddenly are looking at the $1600-$2400 range. Add a CLA and it goes up again. You can have a repaint done on your own from a trusted specialist - but expect a 6-9 month turn around. Yes, that was in months. It'll cost you around $650-$850 to have it properly repainted (de-chromed, de-dinged?) - but that's a hell of a lot cheaper than getting one already done.
- Original Black Paint - You are going to spend over $10,000 for this. There were only a handful of M2/M3's made in black paint and they are rare to come by.
- Leatherette - some real beaters have it completely missing. You can do it yourself for $15 (leatherette) to $50 (real leather) to $75 (exotic animal leather) - so no need to send out for this service.
- L Seal - this is a little seal on the top screw of the mount with an "L" on it. This means the camera is in original condition - the way it left the factory. This is one you do not replace. It's a mark of authenticity of condition.
- Finder Window - Yep, even these can be replaced / upgraded and are usually noted. If the one you are considering has a cracked / dim finder, check out the cost to fix. It may be less than you think.
- Curtain - You do want to make sure this is in good shape. They are about $80-$100 to replace.
If you pick up a fixer-upper for say, $500, get it repainted for $750, then CLA'd for another $100 - you're looking at $1350 (and a 6-9 month wait). If you want it now, be prepared to spend over $2000 for a complete proper repaint and CLA. Or just CLA it and you're all in for a $500-$700 range. Remember, some of these have been sitting for years, so I highly recommend at least a CLA.
For my latest purchase, I went with a 1961 M3 in excellent mechanical condition and, aside from the leather (see image above), virtually ding-free. Mr. Ye is performing a complete refurbish to body, glass and leather as well as the full CLA (no paint). I'll show you the finished product when it comes in next week - but I basically picked this up for a song.
Buying Local VS Online VS Bidding
OK, so now you know what to look for. So, where do you find it? You can walk into a local shop - and they may have one there. Awesome! This is the best of all worlds as you can hold it, hug it, shoot it, and see what you are really dealing with.
I also find it much easier to haggle with someone in person. I've used Green Mountain Photo of Vermont (Leica M2) and Hunt's Photo NH (Hasselblad 500c) with great success. My new local friend is Youxin Ye of YYe Camera (Leica M3) out of MA.
Then there are the large online sellers, like B&H, KEH, Camera West and Tamarkin to name a few. I've used them all at one point and you can really get some nice deals. I spent a lot of evenings on their sites, watching the "new" vintage M's roll in and drooling over all the variations.
Down by the Bay
But the big playground - if you like to roll the dice - is eBay. This is where the true patience game is played. Don't go out tonight expecting to see the deal of the century waiting to be plucked. This is your long game. I set up several watch lists on eBay that narrow what I am really seeking. For the M3, I wasn't sure exactly what I wanted, so I set up the following watches - that emailed me when updated:
- Leica M3
- Leica M3 CLA
- Leica M3 Black
- And the grand daddy - Leica M3 Black CLA
I would check these lists first thing in the morning, on lunch and after work, hoping to catch something perfect. I tend to stick to "Buy it Now" as the auctions can be tedious and annoying for me. But this is where I also began to notice the trends in marking up CLA / black paint to some astronomical proportions.
I've gotten some great deals out here, but again, you need to be patient and know what price range you are looking for. My general guidelines before I would click on the description - to check serial numbers, condition, etc - were as follows:
- Leica M3 - $450-$700 range
- Leica M3 CLA - $600-$850 range
- Leica M3 Black $900-$1200 range
- Leica M3 Black CLA $1000-$1800 range
You won't see a ton that fit that range at first, but trust me, be patient. They do pop up. Anyhow, once one of these would meet my criteria, I would then dig into it to see the details and really look at the condition. If all of that was suitable, I'd dig into the seller to see their ratings and feedback. Zero feedback meant no deal on my end. I like to see them in the hundreds or thousands to be honest. I tend to be a little more picky on that end when dealing with this much money.
If you want to see what trending prices are, simply check the "Show Only: Sold Listings" box on the bottom left column. This will give you an idea what the last specific configurations went for - be it CLA'd, painted, "beat to hell" or what have you.
Do your research, and put many options in your watch list so you can really compare. If it sells out from under you, it wasn't meant to be. Don't sweat it - another WILL come. Reach out to local shops with what you are looking for - they can sometimes find things you can't. I had Hunt, Green Mountain and KEH on the lookout for me too. They'd fire off occasional emails to me with new inventory M3 bodies as they rolled in (if they met my requirements).
In the End
After all my research and seeing what was (not) out there on eBay or any of the online specialty shops, I decided to go with Youxin Ye. He offered the full refurbish of a mechanically sound M3 at exactly the right price for me. He's just down the road (well, a handful of roads) and I can easily bring it to him for any future adjustments, or if desired, painting. Basically, I am ending up with an M3 that will look like it just came off the shelf in 1961. It'll have everything on my wish-list, and nothing more. And seriously, what more could I hope for?