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Prewar Contax Collectors guide, part I

So you want to buy a Contax

A prewar Contax is a very lovely thing to hold. It’s laden with old style European craftsmanship, technical ingenuity and history. Eventually you may decide that you want to acquire one too.

Aside from the historical connotations, there are many valid reasons to own a Contax. One of the most important reasons to me personally is the fact that they use normal 35mm film and can still be used even though many of them are 70 years old. I like being able to drop in a roll of color print film, enjoy some quiet time shooting it and then having the film processed in one hour when the mood strikes me.

Another excellent reason to buy one is of course the fact that Contax cameras are grossly undervalued. In their day, Contax was the premier professional 35mm camera system. Only professionals or affluent individuals could afford to buy them especially in the middle of the great depression. Amateurs who wanted to experiment with 35mm generally bought Leica’s, often with a black paint finish rather than chrome because they were significantly cheaper….

Now-a-days the prices are backwards, Contax sell for less than a contemporary 1930’s Leica. This means that with some careful searching you should be able to find a lovely Contax with a 2.0/50mm Sonnar lens (which was considered one of the very best prewar lenses) for about half the price of an old worn black Leica with a slower 3.5/50mn Elmar. Additionally because collectors agree that Contax cameras are significantly undervalued, if you locate a good example and take care of it, it will in undoubtedly increase in value.

Once you’ve decided to buy a prewar Contax, you’ll have to find it and learn to avoid some pitfalls. Generally the best sources are camera fairs, other collectors that you know, online auction sites, and dealers. Camera fairs are preferable because you can actually handle and study cameras and get a feel for them. Camera collecting is very subjective and this is especially noticeable when it comes to describing or grading a camera’s cosmetic condition and its technical condition. One man’s 10 is another man’s 6… In collecting, the cardinal rule is you need to know what you’re buying. This especially applies to Contax and you need to do some extra research about these cameras, their history and how they were made before you spend your money.

Visit the library, surf the internet, look around camera shows and if possible seek advice from other Contax collectors you run into. Do not under any circumstance, base your information solely on one source or just one dealer who’s trying to sell you something. Dealers are in business to create business, they want to sell you a product or a service and make money. You can not assume all the information you get from the person who is trying to sell you something is correct…

When doing any type of research it’s preferable to get a wide variety of information from many sources and develop a feel for what is correct, consistent, logical and true. When armed with this information it’s easier to decide which camera to buy and if what you’re being told about it sounds reasonable.

It may sound like work just to buy an old camera, but the hunt, the clues, the history can be entertaining and interesting in their own right. And when you come right down to it, buying a Contax is no different than buying an old Leica, a used car, a horse or anything else you care to mention. The path is as old as Rome and the Romans had a phrase which summed it up nicely “caveat emptor” (buyer beware).

In the case of a Contax, the reason for added caution is because at the close of WWII, the Soviets captured what was left of the Zeiss production line. It was a smoldering wreck but with stern draconian measures they managed to restore and re-engineer the Contax production line, produce a small test run of cameras and then physically move all the production machinery and many of the original employees(!) to the Soviet Union. There the camera was renamed Kiev and it remained in production for many decades often with minor changes (primarily implemented to simplify production, cut costs and increase production output).

Kiev cameras, especially the early versions, have their place in history. They can be interesting, significant and fun to use in their own right but if you’re specifically looking for a prewar Contax, then you don’t want to buy a Kiev by mistake. Doing your research and knowing what you’re buying will help you avoid that.

Unfortunately for unwary novice buyers (and honest east-block owners trying to sell real Contax’s) there are a number of unscrupulous Soviet & Polish dealers who re-label Kiev cameras as Contax. They also create elaborate and supposedly “rare” items, such as black Contax II cameras (which never existed) or Contax cameras covered with all sorts of German military engravings (almost always questionable). There’s nothing wrong with owning or using a replica, especially if you can’t afford the real thing. But technically a replica is a fakes if misrepresented and sold as the real thing.

The obvious fakes are easy to spot and are intended to appeal to impulsive buyers for a quick modest price. The less obvious are amore difficult but certainly not impossible if you’ve done your homework. Any collector worth his salt can quickly learn to recognize the fine Moroccan leather, German satin chrome, excellent fit and finish and the various small details that typify Zeiss products. Soviet cameras on the other hand have decidedly different look and feel to the leather/leatherette, chrome, and the overall fit and finish. Many of their cameras even smell subtly different because of different lubricants and leather processing.)

At present it’s beyond the scope of this article to show all the differences but we will be going into that at a later date.