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One of the many things that make collecting old Soviet cameras so tricky, is the fact that many of them aren't in their original state any more. Especially if the cameras were used behind the Iron Curtain, where home repairs and modifications were a people's sport, they are likely to have been tampered with one time or another during their often fifty year long lifetime. After all, why have a repairman do for money, what you yourself can do on the kitchen table wpith a fork and a spoon?
Because of that trait of Russian character (and economical necessity), it's not uncommon to come across 'ugly duckling' models that have been altered to suit photographer's personal wishes. Examples are the 6×4.5 cm Kievs and Iskras, which were hacked to use a more economic film format.
Although they aren't in their original state any more, cameras that have undergone an 'honest' rebuild like those 645 models, aren't necessarily a bad thing for a Soviet camera collector – they tell their own story about how these cameras were used in actual daily life, which to me is more interesting than for instance collecting cheesy special edition Leica M6's.
But there are modifications and modifications. There are the honest ones like the 645 Kievs, and there are the ones deliberately meant to spoil the market. Though they have their own merit and tell their own story about Russia's recent history and 'laissez-faire capitalism', they are often confusing.
On the other hand, the relative popularity of these fakes is very understandable, because a fake is a camera too, with its own intrinsic historical value. Even though it might not be original, that doesn't mean that it's not interesting in itself. The sickles and rockets might have been put there for purely capitalistic reasons, but that irony just adds up to a camera's innate value. Is it cooler to own a soviet camera with original soviet symbols on it, or is it cooler to own a Soviet camera with false Soviet symbols on it, which were illegally engraved in some New Russian's small capitalist firm after work hours? I rest my case. The more campy, the better. These cameras deserve to be taken with a grain of salt, and regarded with a sense of humor.
There are basically two types of modified Russian rangefinders on the market: those intended to look like rare Leica models, and those intended to look like rare Russian cameras.
The rare Leica models were first noted in the beginning of the Nineties, when tourists visiting Russia triumphantly returned with cameras they thought to be rare German war loot – bought for a friend's price from an unsuspecting and obviously dim-witted dealer on a flea market. Their 'Leicas' were engraved with nazi eagles, swastikas, Nazi honcho portraits, and genuine-looking German inscriptions. To the untrained eye, and certainly to the unknowing tourist, they looked like the real thing. But as the tourists soon found out after returning to their comfortable California adobes, the dealers were the ones with the last laugh, because they had sold them old FEDs or Zorkis with a cosmetic makeover. Still nice cameras, but hardly Bildberichter Leicas...
I think that the original motivation for the forgers, whoever they are, to create Leicas out of FEDs, was economic: with foreign tourists flooding the country after the fall of the Soviet regime, and with Soviet Leica copies being available for virtually no cost, this was a stairway to heaven. Simply go out and buy an old FED, then polish off all the original markings and stuff, and then re-engrave the camera with German insignia. Who cares if the camera still has a dozen tell-tale signs that shout out "FED", when tourists can't see the difference? Ka-ching!!!
Somewhere along the line though, business started to go downhill. After reports appeared in the camera press, it became more or less common knowledge that all rare Leicas seen on Russian flea markets were fakes. (As if that wasn't obvious.) Tourists didn't buy the scam any more, and the "Leicas" became unsellable in the west. The false cameras were too conspicuous: they were obviously polished down, they just didn't look right, and they didn't have the Leica gründlichkeit. So the forgers started trying a different approach: that of the "false original, as I call it.
False originals are fake cameras just like the false Leicas, only they are not meant to look like rare sub-variants of a certain German prestige camera, but instead like rare commemorative Soviet cameras. That's very cunning. Creating a "Red Army Issue" FED 1d out of a standard and readily available FED 1d only requires some extra engravings and perhaps a small paint job. You don't need to do any difficult and expensive structural makeovers. What's more, difficult questions like "why does this camera look oddly polished" or "why does this camera have absurd engravings" are easily answered by pointing out the camera's apparent prestige status.
Real special-edition models were usually one-offs and as such didn't appear in any official documents, unlike for instance special-edition Leicas. So collectors and dealers alike have no real way of telling originals and "false originals" apart. There are usually a number of clues to go by, but absolute certainty is uncommon. Especially if a dealer is not very acquainted in the Russian camera field, he will be more likely to label a "false original" as real, because who would go through the trouble of forging a Soviet camera anyway? The same thinking probably affects the buyers of these cameras; mislead by the dazzling hammers and sickles, they are willing to believe that that FED is indeed an ultra rare Soviet relic.
Wait, it gets even more confusing. Fact is, that certain rare variations seem to exist both as fakes and as originals. An illustrious example is the Zorki Yura; another is the FED Siberia.
There are reports dating from around 1940, which note a FED-1 with huge markings for handling with gloves called the FED Siberia. Until recently, not a single known original FED Siberia seemed to have survived the war, until, all of a sudden, similar 'FED Paulus' models started appearing from out of the blue. Those cameras are almost surely fakes, but what if a real FED Siberia were to arise as, say, a result of the opening of the Russian market? Without very convincing papers and pictures to prove its originality, it would surely be dismissed as a fake. The same is true for FED TSVVS': forgeries are so common, that the real thing has become suspect.
What's for sure, is that these fake originals spoil the overview on the market, and make it almost impossible to know if a previously unknown rare variation is 'for real', or if it is a fake. If, say, a batch of purple FED-3s emerges, then, like the Siberia, they would probably be considered fakes from the get go.
To prove my point, here's an intriguing picture of a medium format FED! The accompanying text claims it was serial produced between 1939 and 1941, but that production was abandoned after the FED factory's exile to Berdsk. Could this be the world's most spectacular fake, or is it an original attempt? In the light of so many other fakes, it's become sort of hard to tell...
The Zorki Yura is a very special and much debated case. It's a Zorki-1 with an engraved top plate reminiscing the first manned space flight by Yuri Gagarin in 1961. Pleading for the originality of these cameras is the fact that they were spotted as early as 1978, when nobody even thought about faking cameras. Against the Yura pleads the fact that they couldn't conceivably have been engraved by KMZ, because the plant would have used its prime rangefinder of the time, the Zorki-4, as a base instead of an outdated model. As early as 1957 KMZ engraved the Zorki-4 with "Youth" enscriptions, and now in 1961 they were going to use an old-fashioned Zorki-1 to commemmorate a landmark event? No way.
My own little theory is, that a small batch of Zorki Yura's were engraved privately by the City of Stars (the Russian cosmic base), and sold in their tourist shack along with Yuri matroushkas, Yuri timepieces and life-size cardboard Yuri dummies. The City of Stars probably went to the nearest camera store and ordered a couple of old cameras engraved; big deal.
But see what happens as soon as Princelle's book hits the market! All of a sudden Zorki Yuras are more common than AOL promo CDs. All, ofcourse, fake. So now the Zorki Yura is in the books as a complete fraud, even though there was the "honest" first batch. By the way, Princelle's Yura is #24, and Nathan Dayton shows #80 on his website. In Prague I had a unique chance to compare the numbers 37, 39 and 40 side to side, and the very first thing I noticed were the huge differences in finish and engravings. One had a small Yura engraving, the other had a larger one. The placing of the text was different. One camera's top was mirrorlike while the other ones were matte. It was pretty obvious they were all fakes. By the way, these variations in a single line of fakes make me wonder whether there is more than one studio behind them.
Fake cameras have been around for quite some time; almost as long as Soviet-Russian 35mm photography. It's likely that during World War II, Polish repairmen did FED-to-Leica conversions on a regular basis for German soldiers. German soldiers looted cameras and other goods on the East Front for their own benefit and profit. Since a German soldier carrying a Soviet camera would seem very suspicious (enemy spy!), the soldiers were probably more than happy to have their cameras 'converted' to "Heimat" Leicas by local repairmen. The forging process was easy enough: polish off the original engravings, and engrave some dodgy Leica swirls. The resulting camera looked sufficiently like the real thing to convince inquisitive superiors. For only the conversion costs, a soldier would have had an expendable, useable camera of fair to good quality, and the repairmen had some source of income in hard times.
Although these conversions undoubtedly took place, they never occurred on a truely large scale. There were never entire workshops involved in creating these cameras, nor were the forgeries meant specifically to con collectors. Unlike the early 1990's, when the infamous false Leicas started hitting the market.
The first false Leicas to arrive in the West after the Perestroika (or was it the Glasnost? I can never remember), were cautious fakes of standard Leica-II's that looked somewhat like the real thing, but failed the security checklist on a large number of points. Apparently these models became a success on Russian flea markets, and as the forgers progressed and acquired more skill and knowledge about the conversion and revision process, they became more daring, introducing extravagant copies of presumed WWII Leicas. These had pompous inscriptions, ranging from famous German war photographer's names to portraits of prominent Nazis and SS-Bildberichter markings. But these models spoilt their own market in a way, since they were so over the top that after their initial shocking appearance, no collector took them seriously. Also, very obvious spelling mistakes like 'wermarkt' and 'wermacht' instead of the proper 'Wehrmacht', made these cameras unsellable as originals.
After the WWII fakes proved unsuccessful, the forgers probably tried a different route: that of the rare peacetime Leica. For example, they copied the Leica Luxus, a legendary gold-slad Leica from the '30's, 'Leicas' with snake skins and mahogany cases, Leica Safaris and Samovars. But here too the forgers took their creativity a little too far, and created such monsters like redwood and brass-polished 'Leicas'. Collectors, even the less serious ones, lost interest, and the only people buying those cameras, were the occasional tourists.
After the Leica models, came the slow uprise of the false originals, as noted above. But what does the future bring? All signs indicate that the market is saturated with the traditional fake cameras, so the people who fake them have turned to another specialism: creating fantasy cameras. Cameras not based on any actual examples, but rather fanciful mental exercises and "what if"-prototypes.
Last year in Prague I saw a modified Zorki with an all-black vulcanite skin, and an M6-like rear loading hatch. The skin was etched with red lines, and the knobs of the camera were lacquered tan and red. It was a very nicely done forgery, really a mile apart from the crude first Leica copies. I also saw a camera that looked extremely much like a 1925 Leica-1, but then with an interchangeable lens and a 'зоркий' inscription around the speed dial! It had a small see-through viewfinder on top, without a rangefinder. If it wasn't too outrageous to be true (and if the store hadn't put a sign up reading 'falsum'), I would have perhaps thought that this might be a WWII Zorki prototype... The camera struck me as funny, because it implied that the Zorkis evolved from an "Ur-Zorki" in much the same way as Leicas did.
These fantasy cameras do not pretend to be something they are not by mimicking rare originals, but are entirely new creations, drawn from the fantasy of highly skilled Russian instrument makers. Art, almost.
An interesting question is: who makes these fake cameras? Obviously these thousands of fakes can't be a one-man operation. The forgeries are too many in number and too skilful to be the work of a single person. Also, the forgers would need an infrastructure of dealers and transporters, to push the cameras on the market.
A large organisation it thus is. Probably clandestine too, since this is forging and forging is illegal. So who could be behind these cameras? The Russian mob perhaps? They are likely to have a hand in any large-scale criminal activity going on in the Moscow region, so I can't imagine that they haven't gotten in touch with the forgers over all of the past ten years. So the Russian mob is a possibility. Or perhaps, much less intriguing, it's some New Russian who owns a small workshop, and who has discovered this kind of operation as profitable and interesting. Of the millions of ways to make a buck in Russia right now, forging cameras is certainly one of them.
The tools needed to create a false camera are relatively few and relatively easy to come by, because the process doesn't involve any heavy machinery. The basic equipment list would look something like this: a grinder, an engraving machine, a lathe, a set of screwdrivers, and some other assorted stuff. Creating a basic Leica-II copy is simply a question of removing the old engravings and adding the new ones. More intricate falsifications like TSVVS copies require custom-machined parts, but Russia has lots of informal ways of getting things done, so instead of owning a big factory, you can suffice with a close connection who does. After that, it's just a question of a forger's talent and skill. You'd be surprised at the level of machining that even small workshops can achieve.
How do you recognize a false Leica? They're easy to pick out, because they and their Russian copies differ a lot in some very basic areas. The forgers never succeeded in creating a falsification that cleared the checklist on all points, so close scrutiny of the following hints should bring the true nature to light.
Then finally, what about the market prospects for these cameras? I personally think that they'll become rare one day, since no more than perhaps a couple of thousand are going to be made. They might even become worth big money, if they're discovered by something like the LOMOgraphic Society or a similar cult. Even without such specific interest, they are destined to become collector's items. People collect the strangest things, and neo-communist falseries with offending Nazi symbols stand a good chance of becoming somebody's pet subject. Hell, they might even become sought-after and rare, like the cameras they were supposed to mimic. Until then, these cameras continue to harass the hoardes of newly interested Japanese Leica collectors, and other small-timers who think they're helping an innocent flea market dealer off an irreplacably rare Leica. But far from the spotlight, the mysterious and creative Russian forgers are the ones who laugh last...