This, as Best I Can Tell, is a “Real” Black Paint Leica M2
I think I’ve made it clear I’m not a big fan of the “Black Paint” Leica craze. There was a reason Leica started producing their black cameras in black chrome starting with the M5 in 1971 – traditional black paint Leicas looked like crap after a few years of use. Black paint finishes quickly wore away or bubbled up, to the consternation of owners who expected their Leicas to be durable. Black chrome was much hardier, not wearing away, flaking or bubbling. A definite improvement.
Somewhere along the way – I date it to the late 90’s – a guy named Shintaro in Japan started painting M cameras black for about $500 a camera. He had learned to do so by painting a few of his own cameras black, experimenting with various techniques until he could produce a black paint M almost indistinguishable from an original. He did so not for any nefarious reason but because he liked the look of a black Leica M2/M3, and the originals were scarce and, when found, usually beat up looking. He had started by simply posting his results on the net, and soon other M owners were contacting him asking that he paint their Leicas. A cottage industry was born.
A few years thereafter, I started seeing other people get into the game, offering to paint your chrome Leica black for a fee. The results ranged from the really bad – chrome cameras simply sprayed black with enamel – to those dechromed and refinished almost to Shintaro standard. By the mid-aughts, everybody seemed to either have, or want to have, a black repaint, the point being to have a black Leica M2/3/4, not a collectable.
An effect of all this was that the original Black Paint Leicas – M2’s, M3’s and early M4’s painted black by Leitz – came into vogue as collectables. And then, of course, the scammers got into the game, with varying levels of cleverness, offering to sell you an “Original” Black Paint Leica at collectable prices. It was easy enough to do. While Leitz produced black M’s in official batches, allowing a potential buyer to cross-check Leitz records to determine if a given Black Paint Leica was legit or not, the fact is that, back in the day, Leitz itself would paint your M2 or M3 black by request, giving you an “Original” Black Paint Leica even though the serial number of the camera didn’t place it in a run of official black models. On such exceptions to the general rule, a lot of repaints were pawned off on unsuspecting buyers, usually on Ebay, as originals, some even with fake paperwork claiming to prove their provenance.
The end result of all of this is it’s now difficult to know for certain if the Black Paint Leica you’re looking at is original, and thus exponentially more valuable as a collector’s item, or a “fake” repaint. Not that a good repaint isn’t nice for what it is; I’ve had Shintaro paint both an M2 and an M3 for me back in the day, and they were beautiful, but they were what they were – Shintaro repaints, and I eventually sold both as such. God only knows where they are now, and who might be claiming what about their legitimacy. And this is the problem. There’s so many repaints floating around, the distinction between real and fake is now extremely problematic.
Which leads us to the larger issue – with all of these Black Paint Leicas floating around, most with varying degrees of questionable provenance, what’s the value of the real thing? The real thing, of course, is just a Leica painted black. Whatever value it might possess over and above its practical value as a Leica camera is artificial, a function of its perceived desirability, which is itself a function of its rarity, and Black Paint Leicas are now seemingly everywhere. Insofar as you can prove the legitimacy of your particular camera as an “original” Black Paint, the current market dictates that it possesses an extra value as a collectible. This in turn is predicated upon the requirement that there be clear means to authenticate its legitimacy – serial numbers certainly are a first step – but, in the era of the ubiquitous repaint, one never knows. It might be claimed to have been painted on special order from Leitz, or it might be a legit Black Paint that’s been repainted along the way, or, to muddy the waters further, it may be a repaint whose provenance has been purposefully faked with supporting documents and gains legitimacy after changing hands a time or two. Who knows? The point is this: no matter how much due diligence you do, there’s a chance your $10,000 “Original Black Paint M3” is a fake. And, given that reality, even if you own a real one, astute collectors are going to be skeptical.
As an example, I recently received an email from someone inquiring where he might get a reasonable valuation of a black M2 he had come into possession of. It’s the camera you see above, and at the beginning of the post. It sure looks nice, which, prior to the repainting craze, would have made it highly desirable. Unfortunately, now, you could argue it makes it highly suspect. This is what he told me about the camera:
I have a button rewind m2 (from the first batch of 500) that was used for a year and then stored away in a closet and never touched again. It is in such amazing condition that no one believes the top isn’t a repaint (even though the serial 948896) puts it right in that group. The man I purchased it from at an estate sale was probably in his late 70s/early 80s said he had purchased it and then bought a nikon SLR and never used it again. It does look a little too good to be true although there is minor brassing on the advance lever and the back edge of the top plate as well as on the front edge of the matching summicron lens. Anyway I was wondering about avenues for appraisal/info on the camera etc. I am not eager to sell but may if the price was right.
I have every reason to believe his story. The serial number certainly puts it in a batch of original black M2’s. The explanation sounds reasonable, but then again, it’s an explanation we’ve all heard before, and you can see from his description that he’s already encountered a healthy skepticism when in fact all obvious signs point to its legitimacy. And that’s the dilemma increasingly encountered by folks trying to monetize their collectible Black Paint Leica. It’s also the dilemma facing a prospective buyer. Are you willing to take a $10,000 chance it’s real, or that it hasn’t been repainted, or that it isn’t an elaborate fake concocted in a basement in Stuart Florida? Not me, and my bet is that fewer and fewer future buyers will be as well, which doesn’t bode well for the market.