Street Smarts; The Savvy Consumer’s Guide To Pre-Owned, Collectible, And Vintage Cameras; Tales Of Daring And Adventure On eBay, Including The Saga Of The Leica Copy Copy, The Great IIIf Switcheroo, And More

If I have any guiding principle that informs my desultory scribblings it is simply this: "Don't write about things you haven't actually tried yourself." It's a great way to avoid "foot in mouth" disease, and as the sages are wont to say, experience is the greatest teacher. So, before holding forth (as I did in my last column) on the current affordability of bread-and-butter screwmount Leicas like the IIIa, IIIc, and IIIf, I decided to test my theory in the heat of battle. After calling a handful of friendly retailers to determine that my pricing assumptions were not totally bonkers, I logged onto eBay's Leica section to see what these things were really selling for. True, as an occasional eBayer in good standing I could have simply checked the completed auction prices for various models and have been done with it, but I opted to bid on a few items myself because it's more fun and a lot more informative.

Leica copy copy: To the undiscerning eye, it looks like a Reid I, a fine British copy of a Leica Standard, but it's really a Russian Fed at heart!

The first thing that became painfully clear to me is that your chances of scoring a real coup on eBay these days are about the same as winning the lottery. Even though that luscious near-mint Leica IIIg with 50mm f/2 collapsible Summicron lens is listed at only $468 with three hours to go, you are not going to snag it for anything close to that price. It's the great American tease (it eventually went for a skosh under $1400 to a last-second bidder). Cameras like the Leica IIIc and IIIf, which are not exactly collector's heartthrobs, go for a lot less of course, but even here, the prices are not all that much lower than retail, and the risk can be considerably higher. The other thing I observed was that there is a plague of Leica copies listed on eBay, mostly mediocre Russian Feds gussied up to resemble the super-rare gold-plated, snakeskin-clad Leica Luxus or Luftwaffe models, and suitably engraved. The sellers, mostly in Russia or Ukraine, are generally pretty honest, including the word "copy" prominently in their postings.

This one's for real: Leica IIIf black dial with collapsible 50mm f/2 Summitar is the genuine article, and it's clean and fully functional, but price was no steal, and getting there on eBay was half the fun!

In perusing all the lovely-to-ratty Leica listings, superb-to-mediocre pictures of same, and riffling dismissively over the legions of Leica copies, something fascinating caught my eye, namely a "Reid I Leica copy, with Taylor 2-inch f/3.5 lens" which was shown complete with an original engraved lens cap and leather case. It was listed at $42.50 with only one bid on it and two days to go.

Well, if you don't know what a Reid is, it's a beautifully made, fairly exotic British Leica copy dating from 1958-'65 made by Reid & Sigrist Ltd. of Leicester, England, purveyors of fine machinery, etc. to the Royal Navy during World War II. After the war, German patents devolved to the allied victors, and the most common Reid, called the model III after '58, was an unabashed copy of the Leica IIIb. It was a real beauty, perhaps the best finished of all Leica copies, and it had an interchangeable Leica screwmount Taylor-Hobson 2" f/2 lens. Its winding mechanism didn't have quite the silky smoothness of a real Leica, but other than that it was superb. The Reid model I, a copy of the rangefinderless Leica Standard, had the same lens and shutter speeds of 1/20-1/1000 sec (that is, no slow speeds). The Reid catalog also listed a 50mm f/3.5 Taylor-Hobson lens based on the 50mm f/3.5 Elmar, but this is evidently so rare that some experts doubt this lens was ever offered for sale.

Details, details: Note funky front frame on viewfinder, "Taylor" lens with continental f/stop sequence on front that contradicts f/stops on depth of field scale, veddy un-British (for the 1950s) metric distance scale.

The bottom line: A Reid I with any original lens is rare, interesting, and worth about a grand in excellent condition.

Well, to turn an aphorism on its head, sometimes too much knowledge is a dangerous thing. I examined the good-quality pictures carefully, paying special attention to the lens, case, and lens cap, and decided to bid. In the back of my mind I was a tad uneasy that the seller was located in Ukraine, but the eBay feedback was 99.8 percent positive and the listing included preferred PayPal status--any purchase successfully disputed would be covered for up to $1000. Besides, who in his right mind would go to the trouble of copying a Reid complete with case and lens cap? It didn't make sense.

To make a long story short, I won the Reid I Leica copy for the grand sum of $103.50, plus $15 shipping by posting a maximum bid of $120. The one other bidder tried to ace me out at the last second by upping the ante, but his bid was a tad too low. When the camera didn't arrive for 10 days, I began to get nervous. I e-mailed the seller, who didn't respond immediately. I then called PayPal who assured me that Yanina (her actual name) was a good seller, that I was fully covered if I did not receive the merchandise, and basically to keep my shirt on and wait a few more days. Yanina e-mailed me back in broken English, informing me that the camera had indeed been sent.

A sweet deal at last: This clean, well-working Contax IIa with 50mm f/1.5 Sonnar lens was the closest I came to a coup on eBay, but was the added risk really worth saving $75 or so? You decide.

Two days later, my Reid arrived by US Parcel Post, well packed and in good condition. Breathlessly, I examined it and was deliriously happy--for about 10 minutes. I was not too surprised that the winding mechanism felt a little rough, but this camera was not beautifully finished--the edges of the pressed metal top plate show machining marks. There are numerous other inconsistencies. The shutter speed range is Z (zeit, the word for time in German) plus 1/20-1/500 sec--no 1/1000 sec setting. The front viewfinder surround is crudely fabricated of some gold-colored alloy. The shutter speed numbers do not quite line up with the index arrow. The base plate has the words "opened" (rather than open) and "closed" next to the D-shaped twist lock.

Strangest of all, the "Taylor Inch f/2 lens" has f/stops calibrated in the continental sequence f/3.5, 4.5, 6.3, 9, 12.5, and 18, while the depth of field scale numerals on the barrel run 4, 5, 6, 8, 11, and 16--and the distance scale is calibrated in meters, very odd for a quintessentially British camera. Then there are the Reid logos on the camera top, cap, and case--all very slightly different because they were done freehand. After considering all this, it became painfully obvious that I had been snookered--my interesting but not so beautiful "Reid" was a phony, just another Russian Fed tarted up in Reid livery--a Leica copy copy!