As a member of the Vintage Camera Collectors group on Facebook, the most common “new member” post is from someone who in one way or another, has acquired an old camera and wants to know what it’s worth. Perhaps it belonged to their grandfather or some other distant relative, or perhaps they picked it up at a flea market or garage sale, but somehow these people have an old camera and want to know what it is worth.
There is an easy and a not so easy way to answer that question. I’ll start with the easy…
…something is only worth what someone else is willing to pay for it.
If you’re looking to sell something at an auction or on eBay, I’ll revise my answer and say…
…something is only worth what at least two other people are willing to pay for it.
This is an important reality that a lot of people aren’t willing to accept. More than likely, they saw some other camera being sold for hundreds or even thousands of dollars. Maybe they’re going off the original purchase price. If this camera originally cost $800 when new, its gotta be worth at least $200 or so, right? After all, it looks to be in excellent condition, and I know my grandfather always took care of his stuff, so it should still have a lot of value.
The reality is, old cameras are rarely worth much. Most are worth very little (less than $20), some are worth a little more than little ($20-$100), and a small number are worth quite a bit (over $100 all the way into the thousands). But how do you know which one you have?
Another truth in selling or buying anything is that rare does not always mean valuable. Just because something is rare, does not mean that you should automatically expect to get a lot of money for it. You could chew a piece of gum and stick it to a piece of paper and technically, there is only one chewed piece of gum in the whole world that is chewed by you, stuck to that piece of paper, but just because its the only one of it’s kind, doesn’t mean that someone will pay a lot of money for it.
Since we know that something can only be worth what someone else is willing to pay for it, you need to look at a resource where lot of old things like cameras are often sold. For this, you pretty much have only one option. eBay.
There are those who for various reasons are not a fan of eBay, but when it comes to appraising something like an old camera, there really is no better option. For one, they operate all over the world, but also, millions of things are sold daily on the site so there is a good chance that something similar has come up for sale at least a couple of times.
Using eBay to appraise your camera isn’t exactly an insider trick. People have been doing it for years. Search for the item you have, scroll through the first few hits, and come up with average price and that’s your price. Sounds simple, right?
The problem with this, is that eBay has absolutely no rules about what someone can start an auction at, and many sellers have absolutely no idea what the real value is of something before listing it. If you wanted to list an old pair of smelly gym shoes with an opening bid of $10,000, you can. That doesn’t mean anyone will buy it.
In the early days of eBay, most auctions would be started cheaply, and allowed to go as high as someone bid it up to. These days, cameras worth very little have high starting prices, sometimes ridiculously high. Simply going off the asking prices you see when searching for something on eBay is not a realistic way of appraising your camera.
Any price without an actual bid is worthless. Buy It Now prices are usually even worse. Sellers think that by setting a ridiculously high Buy It Now price will somehow entice some crazy person to buy it for instant gratification without any regard to the true value of the item.
In order to use eBay for a realistic appraisal of your item, you must check the “Sold listings” box in the search options on the left side of the screen. This will limit your search to only auctions where someone either agreed to the Buy it Now price, or bid up to that amount. Going off auctions where someone really paid an amount is a much better way to get an idea of the value of something.
Looking at the list of sold listings only tells you part of the story. If the item you are searching for is something common, you’ll find quite a few sold auctions with prices that vary all over the place. The example I am using is for a Yashica Electro 35 rangefinder camera which is a model that is very common and usually goes for pretty low prices. As I type this article, I did a search and see sold prices as low as $0.99, all the way up to $169.00 with free shipping in the US.
Why would someone pay $169 and someone else pay $1 for the same camera? In statistics, there is a term for this called “outlier”. An outlier is an observation point that is distant (either high or low) from other observations. Meaning that the most extreme highs and lows are outliers. Why something becomes an outlier can be for multiple reasons. Perhaps the seller listed the opening price way too low, and someone jumped on it, or perhaps someone listed a price way too high and that one person in the whole world was online at the perfect right time and bought something for considerably more than what it was worth.
As a general rule, when looking at the whole list of sold listings on eBay, its safe to eliminate the highest and lowest values you find. In most cases, if you were trying to sell your Yashica Electro, you should expect to get more than $1, but nowhere near $169 for it. It’s true value is somewhere in between.
Getting to that “true value” is tricky because as I’ve observed many times in appraisals of old cameras, there are often 3 prices for something. They are:
The above graphic illustrates the 3 different kinds of prices that you will often see when appraising something like a camera. I see many people ask questions on vintage collector groups or in forums asking this question “What is my camera worth”, and often the people who respond genuinely are trying to be honest, but if they’re not willing to give you that amount of money, then what good is their estimate?
The only price that really matters is what you’ll actually get for the camera if you attempt to sell it. I’ll go back to using eBay to come up with this price, but in order to do that, you have to consider many variables, the simplest two are the camera’s condition, and if it works.
There are other variables that affect how much a camera can go for. Look at the following chart for things that will have a positive or negative impact on the selling price of a camera.
When looking at the prices of sold listings and trying to determine where in that range your camera is worth, you should look at all of the variables above. For every green variable that is true about your camera, you can go towards the higher value, but for every red variable that is true, you need to bring your price back down.
These variables are certainly important, but hands down, the single most important variable in my opinion is in the effort put by the seller in the auction.
Im not tested this camera, because im not expert in this type of camera, so doest (sic) not exist film for this cam. Is centairly (sic) a collectible. Please also take the time to zoom into our pictures to see all the details. However if you have any questions please feel free to ask.
The above description is from an actual eBay listing for a Kodak 8mm camera. Grammatical and spelling errors aside, the seller put practically no effort into telling us anything about the camera. Even if he or she wasn’t an “expert”, any person can fiddle with a camera for 5 minutes and discover if the knobs turn, if the lenses and viewfinders are clear, and give a general description of the condition of the camera.
If however, someone takes the time to put some meaningful information into their auction and some quality pictures like the one above, you can reasonably expect the prices to go quite a bit higher.
The point is, there are many variables which can impact the selling price of a camera. This is important when appraising what you have, because you should attempt to match the conditions of the sold auctions with what you are trying to sell.
So, with all of this information, how do we determine if our Yashica Electro is worth $1 or $169? If your Electro was discovered in your aunt’s closet after she passed away and its in nice shape, but you dont have a battery to test it, and you don’t know if it works, I would say somewhere in the $10 – $20 range. If you are willing to wipe down the camera, get the proper battery, and throw a roll of film through it and can tell the buyer that it is in good working condition, you just increased the value of that camera to maybe $50 – $60. If you are a professional camera dealer and have performed a complete CLA (Clean, Lube, Adjust) of the camera and offer a guarantee, you might get closer to that top price of $169.
These guidelines are true of any camera, not just the Yashica Electro. There are certain brands and models that consistently go for high prices. One such example is the Rolleiflex 2.8F. In near-mint condition, these cameras can sell for over $1000. In average condition, expect to pay $500-$600, and in parts condition they still fetch well over $200. The thing is, very few cameras are worth the same as the Rolleiflex 2.8F.
Cameras should never be bought as an investment (unless its the Rolleiflex 2.8F to the left), they should be used, so I’ll leave you with one other piece of advice and that is, maybe you shouldn’t sell it at all.
Cameras were invented to make photographs and capture memories. A unique thing about film cameras is that many of them still accomplish their intended function just as good as the day they were made. If you consider that the film we can buy today is sharper, clearer, and more vibrant than the films from the early 20th century, you could say that a 70 year old camera is actually BETTER today than it was when it was new. Sure, sometimes they need a bit of cleaning, or even some tinkering to restore full functionality, but with sites like mine and the massive amount of information already out on the Internet, you should have no problem bringing most cameras back to life with just a few basic tools and a little bit of patience.
When I first became re-interested in film cameras, I never imagined my collection would grow like it has, but this is a wonderful hobby, and the vast amount of variety that’s out there is truly spectacular. So perhaps the value of that camera that used to belong to your grandfather is worth far more than any currency. If your grandfather is still alive, ask him to show you how to use it. If he’s not, learn about that model, clean it up, and shoot with it. Step into his, or the original owner’s shoes and make some new photographs. Perhaps you’ll find that the value of that camera is much higher than you ever could have imagined!