An Amazing Leica Collection

Copyright 1992, Tom R. Halfhill

[ LEICA COLLECTION ]

Leica collecting has never been more popular than it is today. Since about the mid-1980s, avid collectors have been snatching up Leica equipment at a feverish pace, forcing prices to skyrocket. At the same time, the erosion of the U.S. dollar has encouraged foreign collectors -- particularly the Japanese -- to buy Leicas in America at comparatively bargain-basement prices. Brokerage houses have sprung up to satisfy this demand by purchasing large lots of cameras in the U.S. for resale in Japan. So great is the hunger for mint equipment that collectors are widening their search to include other classic 35mm rangefinder cameras of the pre-SLR era, such as copies of Leicas and the famous Nikon, Canon, and Contax cameras of the 1930s, '40s, '50s, and early '60s.

But all this rabid collecting has had two unfortunate effects. First, rising prices have devastated Leica users. It's getting very difficult for ordinary photographers to afford Leica equipment, even well-used cameras and lenses in less than mint condition.

Second, to the dismay of Leica enthusiasts everywhere, the vast majority of Leica equipment bought by collectors on either side of the Pacific quickly disappears into the black hole of private collections. Locked away in glass cases or vaults, these historically fascinating cameras and accessories are rarely seen again by anyone but their owners and a small circle of friends. Only when the owner dies or loses interest do the cameras make a brief public appearance on the auction block before vanishing into yet another private collection.

That's what makes the Leica collection of Terry Shuchat (pronounced SHUCK-it) so unique. Not only is it immense -- nearly a hundred screw-mount bodies, dozens of M-series and SLR cameras, thousands of lenses and accessories -- but it's also one of the very few private collections on public display. Anyone can walk in and enjoy Shuchat's collection six days a week, without an appointment, and without paying admission.

[PHOTO LINK #1: Terry Shuchat is the owner of Keeble & Shuchat, one of the San Francisco Bay Area's leading camera stores.]

Is Shuchat running some kind of free museum? Nope, although sometimes it seems that way. Instead, Shuchat is the owner of Keeble & Shuchat, one of the San Francisco Bay Area's premier camera stores. Located near Stanford University in Palo Alto, some 20 miles south of San Francisco, Keeble & Shuchat is a camera store that perhaps more than any other bears the imprint of its uncommon owner. Two buildings are filled with an unusually wide array of photographic products, from inexpensive 35mm point-and-shoots to top-grade professional equipment. The main building has a public exhibition gallery and a darkroom department second to none.

Throughout the store, on high shelves and in glass display cases, visitors can gaze at hundreds of old cameras and accessories of every description. If you have a sharp eye, you'll spot such rare antiques as a very early Speed Graphic from the 1920s and a Kodak Ektra from the 1940s.

But it's upstairs, in the darkroom department on the second floor, that Shuchat has gathered his amazing collection of Leicas. Even the sales representatives from Leica USA believe it is the largest such collection on public display anywhere outside Leica's corporate headquarters in Germany.

It's also an eccentric collection. Shuchat describes himself as a casual collector, someone who has assembled his host of cameras rather haphazardly over a period of more than 30 years. Unlike many collectors, he does not singlemindedly pursue the hobby with religious zeal. He doesn't, for example, travel to auctions and swap meets far and wide in search of rare pieces of equipment with unusual markings or serial numbers. Nor is he obsessed with owning every known variation of a certain model or accessory. Many of his items -- including a gold-plated Leica R3 -- were acquired when ordinary customers simply wandered into his store with something to trade. In fact, some old cameras (though none of the Leicas) were given to him outright.

As a result, Shuchat's collection is a charming hodgepodge. Picky Leica historians may notice that he's missing certain vital items, while on the other hand possessing redundant duplicates of other items. Some things are in mint condition, and others are forlornly battered. And it's not unusual to see such oddities as a camera body from the 1930s mounting a lens from the 1950s and an auxiliary viewfinder from the 1940s. A museum curator he's not.

Shuchat even has a few items verging on the bizarre. For example, there's a street sign from the road where Leica's main factory is located in Germany, and some silverware from the company lunchroom!

[PHOTO LINK #2: Assembled over a period of more than 30 years, the Leica collection includes more than a hundred cameras and thousands of accessories.]

But that's all part of the fun -- which is one of the main reasons why Shuchat keeps his collection open to the public. "They're mostly here to show what photography used to be, and because people like to look at them," he says. "People will say, `Hey, my father used to have a camera like that!' It also gives us credibility as a Leica dealer. We give people a reason to come here."

Shuchat says his collection is definitely good for business. Downstairs, he buys and sells both new and used Leicas. Upstairs, however, prospective buyers are politely turned away. Shuchat's collection is not for sale. Not any part of it. Period.

Shuchat has steadfastly refused offers from drooling collectors who have literally begged him to part with certain items, even items which are duplicates. "If I start selling, where do I stop?" he asks. "Pretty soon there would be no collection."

It's not hard to understand why a desperate collector might approach Shuchat on bended knee. There's plenty to drool over. Take, for example, the pair of Model B Compur Leicas seen in the accompanying photo, both with clip-on rangefinders. Only about 1,600 Model Bs were manufactured between 1926 and 1941, and they were the only Leicas with between-the-lens shutters instead of focal-plane shutters. The camera on the left was made in the late 1920s and has a Compur shutter built into the noninterchangeable lens. The camera on the right, of about the same vintage but in much poorer condition, has a similar Copal shutter.

[PHOTO LINK #3: A pair of Leica model Bs with clip-on rangefinders and between-the-lens shutters from the 1920s.]

Another rare bird is Shuchat's mint-condition black Leica 250, also known as the "Reporter." Only 955 of these unusual cameras were made between 1933 and 1943, though a few more were assembled from leftover parts after World War II. The Reporter is basically a Leica III specially designed to hold ten meters of bulk film, enough for about 250 exposures per load. Each large film chamber has its own lightproof film cassette, allowing the camera back to be opened so partial lengths of film can be snipped off and developed. Shuchat's Reporter is a 250GG made in 1939 and is shown with a 50mm f/2 Summitar lens.

[PHOTO LINK #4: This Leica 250GG Reporter was made in 1939 and holds enough film for 250 exposures. Note the large circular frame counter on the left film chamber.]

Shuchat also has a pair of Leica IIIc bodies painted in field gray for the German armed forces in World War II (see photo). Judging from the close serial numbers, these two cameras were probably manufactured a few days or weeks apart in 1943 or 1944. The camera on the left is shown with a 50mm f/2 Summitar lens, and the other has a collapsible 50mm f/3.5 Elmar. Neither camera is in mint condition; if they could talk, they'd surely have fascinating stories to tell.

[PHOTO LINK #5: A pair of Leica IIIc cameras finished in field gray for the German military in World War II. These two examples were manufactured in 1943 or 1944.]

An extremely rare item is the Leica IIIa camera shown with a three-lens turret. The camera was manufactured between 1940 and 1942 but is not nearly as unusual as the turret, which Shuchat believes was handmade in the San Francisco Bay Area. When he acquired the turret years ago, he was told that fewer than a dozen were made by an unknown craftsman. It's modeled after the multi-lens turrets which were common on movie cameras in the days before zoom lenses. Though quite a handful, it does speed up lens changing. Mounted on the turret are a 50mm f/2.8 Elmar, a 35mm f/3.5 Summaron, and a 90mm f/4 Elmar. The lenses are not necessarily the same vintage as the camera -- for instance, the 50mm Elmar dates from 1956. Clipped atop the camera is a Vidom Universal viewfinder which can be adjusted to show the correct field for all three lenses.

[PHOTO LINK #6: This Leica IIIa from the 1940s is equipped with an unusual three-lens turret not made by Leitz. Shuchat believes the turret was handmade in very small numbers by an anonymous craftsman.]

If that's not odd enough for you, have you ever seen a stereo Leica? Probably not, because very, very few were manufactured. The camera shown in the accompanying photo is a Leica III from 1934 and is not very unusual. But the stereo lens is quite unusual and was made by Leitz Canada in Midland, Ontario, sometime between 1954 and 1957. It actually consists of a pair of closely spaced lenses, each with a focal length of 33mm and a maximum aperture of f/3.5.

[PHOTO LINK #7: This rare stereo lens, prism attachment, and special viewfinder were manufactured by Leitz Canada in the 1950s. The lens actually consists of two 33mm f/3.5 lenses.]

Because the twin lenses are positioned so closely together -- much more closely than those on a conventional stereo camera of the 1950s -- optimum stereo effect is possible only at distances of less than ten feet. For longer distances, you have to attach the black prism device (seen on the left) to achieve greater separation. Pictures are composed through the special viewfinder seen atop the camera, which yields a vertical-format image when the camera is held horizontally.

Other than requiring the special lens, prism, and viewfinder, this stereo system works on any Leica camera loaded with any ordinary film. Interestingly, the lens has an M-series bayonet mount but can be used on screw-mount cameras by removing a special flange. This makes it perhaps the only Leica lens which can be adapted from bayonet to screw mount. Usually, screw-mount lenses can be converted to bayonet with an adapter, but not vice versa.

More recent items in Shuchat's collection include an array of M-series rangefinder bodies and SLR cameras. Although they aren't as numerous as the screw-mount cameras, some are worth their weight in gold -- literally. In addition to the aforementioned gold-plated R3 (which was actually carried and used by its former owner), Shuchat also has a gold-plated M4-2 with reptile-skin leather and matching 50mm f/1.4 Summilux lens. A thousand of these cameras, each packaged in a mahogany presentation case, were issued to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Leica designer Oskar Barnack's birthday in 1879. The vast majority of these cameras are probably reposing in bank vaults.

To honor another anniversary -- the 50th year of Leica cameras -- Leitz issued limited editions of the CL, M4, M5, and Leicaflex SL2 in 1975. (See photo.) Each camera is marked "50 Jahre" with an oak leaf symbol.

[PHOTO LINK #8: These three cameras were special editions issued in 1975 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Leica. At left, a Leica CL; center, a Leicaflex SL2; right, an M4.]

Although Leicas are famous for their easy handling and compact design, you wouldn't know it from the early motorized M2-M in Shuchat's collection. (See photo.) The rather large motor drive attached to the baseplate sits atop a heavy battery pack of almost equal size. An estimated 275 of these M2 variants were made in 1966, and Shuchat's factory-black example is in beautiful condition, though the motor has a few marks.

[PHOTO LINK #9: A very rare Leica M2-M with motor drive and battery pack. Only 275 of these factory-modified M2s were ever made.]

Another unwieldy monster is the Leicaflex SL2 MOT seen in the accompanying photo. This Panzerlike camera is a special motorized version of the SL2, which was actually the third model in Leica's SLR series, following the original Leicaflex and Leicaflex SL. Only 1,020 Leicaflex SL2 MOTs were manufactured, all in 1975, and all in black chrome. Fully loaded with batteries, the SL2 MOT is a formidable beast.

[PHOTO LINK #10: Fully loaded with batteries, this motorized Leicaflex SL2 MOT is an imposing handful. About a thousand were manufactured in 1975.]

Shuchat's Leica collection is more than just cameras and lenses. He also has hundreds of miscellaneous accessories, including clip-on rangefinders, auxiliary viewfinders, lens hoods, light meters, filters, close-up attachments, flash reflectors, enlargers, slide projectors, and tabletop tripods. Hanging on a wall nearby are reproductions of Oskar Barnack's design drawings for the first Leica. There's also a shelf devoted to Leica copies, such as the Tower camera sold by Sears Roebuck.

Among the more whimsical items are the German street sign and company silverware. The street sign for "Oskar-Barnack-Strasse" was obtained from a Leica sales representative, Shuchat explains. It never actually stood on Oskar Barnack Street -- a few extras were made when the street was named after the Leica's creator.

The silverware was actually used, however. As Shuchat tells the story, he was dining in Leica's company restaurant during a visit to the factory a few years ago. His attention was immediately attracted to the silverware, which is engraved with the corporate logo. Shuchat asked a Leica employee where he could obtain a few pieces of silverware for his collection. "He told me, `Just take it, no one will mind,'" Shuchat says. Needing no further encouragement, Shuchat tucked a knife, a fork, and a spoon into his tote bag.

But on his way out of the restaurant, the silverware started rattling and clanking. Embarrassed, Shuchat slipped into a restroom and wrapped the implements in paper towels. "I wasn't a thief, but I sounded like a thief," he laughs.

[end]


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