RARE! 1941 German Navy Zeiss-Ikon Contax Camera, Freshly Serviced
Cleaned, Lubricated & Adjusted. Ready for immediate use!
This is a 1941 Zeiss-Ikon Contax III produced in Germany during WWII and issued to the Kriegsmarine. During the second world war and the years leading up to it, the Contax III was the best built and most expensive 35mm camera in the world. It cost twice as much as a Leica and was certainly a more advanced, more complex design. Historically significant, the Contax III also featured one of the very first electric light-meters. The Contax was so highly regarded that in the United States, that the Contax was specified for use by 35mm photographers working for the WPA (Works Progress Administration) in their vast program to document the dramatic effects of the 1930’s Great Depression in America. As a result, many timeless American photos were shot with a Contax.
On the other side of the Atlantic, the Kriegsmarine (Germany’s navy from 1935 to 1945) was also impressed with the Contax. At the time, the Kriegsmarine held a preeminent position among the various branches of the Wehrmacht. They were the best funded and best equipped branch and they expected the best technology of the era. The navy already made extensive use of advanced Zeiss optics in their naval rangefinders, various targeting systems and binoculars, so it’s not surprising that the Zeiss-Ikon Contax III fitted with a superb Zeiss 1.5/50mm lens, was supplied to select Kriegsmarine warships and U-boats. This naval patronage insured that Zeiss-Ikon never had to give up the chrome finish on their Contax cameras during the war, despite war shortages. Leica never received this status even though their cameras were also used by the Kriegsmarine. Leicas were primarily issued to the Army and Luftwaffe because they were lighter, compacter, cheaper and much simpler to produce in the large quantities. As the war progressed, they had to make do with an inexpensive grey paint finish which further reduced their cost.
To briefly sum things up, the camera in this listing is a Contax III camera that was issued by the Kriegsmarine. The serial number on top of the camera M37833 indicates that it was produced in Dresden, Germany between 1940 - 1942. The serial number on the body, also matches the serial number on the removable back. This of course indicates that it still has its original back as delivered from the factory.
This Contax also has the Kriegsmarine’s MF engraving with an inventory number on the rear edge highlighted in white. Included is an authentic Kriegsmarine’s leather case with MF markings embossed into the leather below the depth of field chart riveted on the rear of the case as is typical during the war. I should point out that the two MF numbers are not identical. They are however very close. The camera’s number is MF- 1470, and the case’s number is MF-1425.
This camera is fitted with a 1.5/50 Sonnar and its serial number 2269558 dates it to late 1938. This lens was on the camera when we acquired it. While it’s possible that this lens was on the camera when it was delivered (lens stocks at the factory generally exceeded camera production to insure an adequate supply), I think it’s more likely that this lens was fitted in leu of a wartime lens because the earlier lenses had a much better fit and finish. Or it might simply have been a convenient replacement for one that was damaged.
Understandably a Kriegsmarine Contax III is a desirable and significant camera. But what makes this camera extra desirable is the fact that it’s been carefully serviced and ready for immediate use. This camera is in full working order and in case you wondered, it uses normal 35mm film.
The camera has been carefully cleaned, lubricated and adjusted. Everything works. The original Zeiss shutter has received special attention and all speeds (B & 1/2 sec – 1/1250th) are appropriate. The self timer was cleaned as well and works correctly. The coupled rangefinder internal optical array has also been cleaned. It’s bright, accurate and smooth and a real pleasure to use. Even the uncoupled light meter, it still responds actively to light. However not surprisingly the readout is no longer accurate. (Selenium light meters were not designed to last 77 years.) So we recommend a modern handheld meter. The focus, shutter speed and aperture settings on this camera work the same as on a Contax II and are easy to adjust.
The 1.5/50mm Carl Zeiss Sonnar was widely recognized the finest 50mm lens of its era and it still performs well. The lens is in excellent condition. The glass is clean and clean. There are no scratches, just some light cleaning marks. (But you’ll need a magnifier to see them.) There is no crystallization, separated elements or other problems and it’s capable of producing lovely photos with modern color and B&W films.
It comes complete with lens, leather camera case and a Zeiss-Ikon film take up spool.
The Kriegsmarine Contax is a desirable and difficult to find camera. Despite living in northern Europe near the shipyards and ports that once held the German naval fleet, this is only the second naval Contax that I‘ve been able to locate and acquire in 15 years. The reason for this rarity is that the combined production of Leicas for various military branches, far exceeded the numbers of Contax cameras produced for naval use. Ultimately the number of cameras issued per ship was rather limited. And let’s not forget that many vessels were sunk and at the end of the war substantial numbers of them were deliberately scuttled by their crews rather than surrender. For example, of the 1,156 German U-boats produced from 1939 to 1945, 784 of them were lost in action. (An appalling loss of human life, no matter where your sympathies may lay.) Of the 372 U-boats that survived, 238 U-boats were purposely scuttled in the Western Baltic where the crews could be picked up by the allies, rather than the Soviets. The operation was ordered by Admiral Dönitz under the code name 'Regenbogen'. It was intended to sink what remained of the entire German fleet.
It’s obvious that it’s much easier to retrieve a Leica from a battlefield, than a Contax from the sea bottom. As a reminder of this aspect of camera collecting, I’ve included a photo of a Contax III retrieved from U-534, a German submarine. It went down on 5 May 1945 after being attacked by Allied bombers and was raised from the bottom of the sea on 23 August 1993 by the Dutch salvage company Smit Tak . This camera was found inside the sub and is currently on display in Birkenhead England.
If you're interested in German U-boat history, I can recommend the following website which is dedicated to this subject: https://uboat.net
So in closing, this is an interesting opportunity to acquire a very collectable camera. Freshly serviced and ready to be used if you are so inclined.