KEH: A Massive Warehouse Packed with Cameras and Vintage Gear
“I have a Leica M3 at home… I took my kids aside and said, ‘Okay, this is going to be a 401k."
KEH Camera’s warehouse looks pretty unassuming at first. It’s big, pretty loud, holds a lot of containers, etc. If you’re a camera enthusiast, though, it’s heaven. It’s like being in a Costco filled with over 50,000 cameras, lenses, and gear from every manufacturer, purchased from all over the world, and from just about any decade (the childlike desire to touch everything around you returns with gusto). Some pretty crazy gear has passed through KEH during its 38 years of business, and the folks over at the company were kind enough to share some of their current favorites.
Joe Castiglione joined KEH as the CEO in March 2016. His background is in sales and manufacturing, ranging from a family grocery store in Buffalo, New York to owning a chain of wireless retail stores and, later, international manufacturing. He describes himself as a “culture person.”
“You win with people,” he says, adding:
“KEH is unique from the oldest employee to the newest employee. There’s so much enthusiasm with the industry… We have employees here that are approaching 30 years… I’ve never been in an industry where people are so passionate about what they do in the industry that they’re in.”
Jimmy Smart is the Swiss Army Knife of KEH operations. In his six years with the company, he’s done a little bit of everything. His background has always been in operations and project management, but KEH has proven to be a unique workplace outside of camera sales. He notes:
“Being in a used business, you’re constantly looking for your inventory. Where to buy it, how to market it, how to get people interested in selling their equipment. That’s definitely a unique challenge to a used business.”
Needless to say, no company requires camera expertise the way KEH does. That’s where Larry Hicks comes in. Joe’s deference in regard to Larry’s expertise tells you all you need to know:
“Larry’s one of out go-to guys at KEH. When anyone needs to know anything about KEH, Larry’s one of the braintrust that we go to… There’s very few people anywhere that could do what he does. Larry’s got such a plethora of knowledge on pricing and competition. A lof of this stuff, you can’t go and shop it because it’s just not available. When you have the mastermind of Larry, that’s what he specializes in.”
Larry has been selling cameras for 37 years, 25 of them at KEH, he has a degree in photography, and his grandfather was a photographer. Cameras are in his blood. His office is filled with binders and books of hard-to-find camera information, and he still encounters crazy new items he needs to research. He’s seen a lot.
“We’ve had things going back to the late 1890’s during my time here.”
I asked him to describe the value of old camera gear in 2017.
“Some of it is just the aesthetic quality... In some people’s minds that adds a lot of value. Then there’s items that have a rebirth. In the 60’s, Pentax screw-mount cameras and lenses were even top above Nikon, then the bayonet mount came out and it made the screw mount go down. Now, with all of the mount adapters for micro 4/3, those lenses are having a rebirth. In many cases, those lenses are worth more than they were new.”
“What’s retro is now popular… Instant film is one of them. Polaroids were popular in the 60’s and 70’s then they went out of style. Lately with the Fujis and some of the other cameras, like Lomo, it’s coming back again. That’s just one of many many examples.”
“Older lenses to put on video, gives it a whole different look. Those are starting to come back around.”
Larry: “Yeah, like the old Leica screw mount as well as the old movie lenses, for home movies. 8mm, 16mm, they will actually cover the sensors of a lot of the micro 4/3 cameras and there’s a lot of mount adapters. So people are buying those old lenses because it has this kind of ethereal quality of the picture, and they can do it on digital.”
Larry’s knowledge pays off in more than just his picture quality. When you’ve been tracking camera value as long as he has, you know what to sell and what to keep.
“I have a Leica M3 at home… I took my kids aside and said, ‘Okay, this is going to be a 401k.’ This camera goes up in value. A lot of cameras either don’t or they stay flat. Leicas, Roloflexes, almost always go up.”
I asked if there was a secret to predicting gear value in the future. The team agreed that, outside of obvious traits like rarity and historic significance, the market swings in too many weird directions to make predictions any more than a gamble. As an example, Larry talks about how a little Star Wars history changed the fate of a seemingly random piece of KEH gear.
“Graphplex, it’s an old bulb flash, but the handle that holds the batteries is what most of the lightsabers are made out of. Some people will buy those, take most of the flash part off of it, and make it into a lightsaber. Who would have known?”
KEH ended up marketing the handles accordingly and quickly sold out. Knowledge is the real value at KEH, and the team proved it by showing off some of their favorite gear in stock.
Leica M2 - Black
Larry: “Back in its day, every camera was done with a silver finish, chrome. This one is actually black paint, which was done for a lot of pros. There weren’t very many made of this, and this was a production number during a transition period. It was a rewind button, most of them have a lever, so you’ll see only a couple hundred that have the button. It makes it real rare. Instead of being worth like $1,000 this is worth $15,000.”
Kodak Matchbox Subminature Camera
“This was made for the secret service. There were two batches made, 500 of each… To look at it, you wouldn’t even know it’s a camera. This was back in the heyday of spies. Everybody remembers the James Bond movies from the 60’s, this is a little spy they used to do copy work.”
“This is just a slightly more modern version of that. They both take 16mm film. Because of the rarity factor, this one’s worth probably $2,500 and this one’s probably only about $100.”
“There’s only about 10 Kodaks that are worth a lot of money, and that’s one of them. But if you didn’t know what it was, you wouldn’t even know it’s a Kodak.”
“One of my favorite stories to tell people, and we don’t have one to show, the Nikon 1, the first version Nikon ever made. There were 870 of them made. A lot of them have been lost, destroyed, whatever. I’d been here maybe three years, so this is going back to ‘85 or ‘86, a guy came in and goes, ‘Yeah I bought this at a yardsale.’ He paid $50 for it… We looked at it, checked it out... And said ‘We’ll pay you $12,000 for it.’ He’s like, ‘What!?’ He was thrilled… The chances of finding one of those these days is almost impossible.”
“There is no marker on the Nikon 1, you have to look at the serial number.”
Jimmy: “That, and I believe at the bottom it says ‘Made in Occupied Japan.’”
Meyer Optik Gorlitz Trioplan Lens
“It’s from the 50’s. It gives this soap-bubble background and went through a rebirth recently. There was a Kickstarter campaign where the went in a re-did this with a Canon EOS mount, Nikon mount. Instead of being the $600 it was, now the new version is $1,500. What’s old is new again.”
Polaroid Big Shot
“They don’t make film for it anymore, so it’s only worth $50 to $75, but it’s made just to shoot headshots. You look through it and get until the images line up together. This is the same camera that Andy Warhol used for all of his portrait series and sent off to the factory to have all of these shots done of all of the Hollywood people… For a while, every one we got sold immediately because of that tag. Now that they don’t make film for it, it’s changed a little bit.”
Larry: “On this one, the lens actually rotates, so you get this super wide-angle shot. It’s a film camera. It takes 120 count film so, big film. Not your 35mm… There’s a smaller 35mm version, but people love to see the motor on this one work. This is probably $1,500 to $1,800.”
Baby Brownie Special
Larry: “There is an architect/industrial design artist named Walter Teague, who teamed up with Kodak in the ‘30’s and did a lot of design for their cameras. This is the only one we happen to have on hand. It’s not the pretties of the ones he did, but anything that he designed has gone up in value over the years. That one’s still only worth about $20, but some of them go up to around $600 or so just because he designed it… A lot of people buy them and just put them on mantelpieces because they look so incredible.”
Rolleiflex 3.5 E2 Xenotar Twin Lens Reflex
Larry: “Twin-lens camera, the Roloflex, which was big for wedding photographers back in the day. You have to look down in it… This was the camera to use in the 50’s, 60’s, and really some of the 70’s. That one’s German made and it’s very high quality. There’s also a Japanese version called the Yashica Mat, which a lot of students use. I bought a version of this for my wife for our second wedding anniversary… I think I paid $325 for mine and it’s worth about $1,200 to $1,300 now. Another one of those that I call the 401k Plan.”
The Only Left-Handed Camera Ever Made
“If you think about it, they’re all right handed.”
Joe describes the one throughline of KEH’s 38-year history as customer loyalty. Because of the robust camera knowledge from people like Larry as well as the intense inspection process for each piece of gear, KEH is a haven for camera enthusiasts, historians, and offbeat 401k planners alike.
Happy shopping, filmmakers.