When is a Leica not a Leica? When it’s a Soviet-made Zorki or a FED (among others). These visually and functionally resemble Leica cameras from the mid 20th century. What drove some countries to manufacture copies of screw mount cameras manufactured by Ernst Leitz GmbH? Was it just imitation, or was there more that led to the knockoffs being manufactured? We spoke to three subject matter experts for their insights into the origin of fake Leica cameras.
Lead image of a FED 3 by Paulo Corceiro on Flickr
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Knockoff cameras aren’t a thing of the past. There are still lesser-known brands copying designs and features from more established ones to produce cheaper (in price and quality) cameras. It’s tricky with digital cameras though, for sure. Visual inspiration is commonplace in the design industry, and it’s not uncommon to see cameras resemble one another. But it’s probably rare to see a camera model that’s almost a clone of one from an established brand like Leica. Copyright protections have come a long way in the last few decades, which prevent such things from happening on a large scale. However, did you know that Leica cameras were among the most widely and successfully cloned cameras in the recent past? To find out the origins of such cameras, I had a conversation with a few experts, all of whom shared quite a bit of valuable information.
A Historical Angle on Fake Leica Cameras
Richard Chalfan of The International Leica Society was introduced to us when we reached out to their current president, Brad Husick. According to Richard, a former Leica Store Bellevue ambassador, the seeds for the origins of fake Leica cameras were sown nearly a century ago. Felix Edmundovich Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the Soviet Secret Police Cheka (later the KGB), set up a work commune Trudkommuna in Kharkow, Ukraine. The lack of a proper optical industry in the USSR at the time gave rise to an idea. Dzerzhinsky decided that the Trudkommuna should begin producing copies of Leica cameras for the country’s benefit.
“It is believed that the first fake Leicas were made very early in the life of the FED,” says Richard. “But as far as is known, none of those early cameras have survived. So it is reasonable to assume the first Soviet Leica copies were made between 1932 and 1934, probably as soon as the Leica II was introduced in 1932.” As there was no prewar patent, they could not take legal action against these FED copies of the USSR. Following WW2, the Allied countries made these patents available free of charge. Leica of Germany still had no protection against their ideas and designs being copied. And Richard agrees with me that these fake Leica cameras were a source of pride for those who sought them out.
“Leica copies were produced to appeal to people who valued the name Leica but could not afford to own the real thing,” concurs Richard.
Fakes vs Clones
Zeb Andrews of Blue Moon Camera & Machine in Oregon rightly notes that it’s important to distinguish between fake Leica cameras and cloned / knockoff Leicas. The latter began to increase in production after the Second World War. “In terms of the Leica copies, those sprang up after WWII,” says Zeb. “The Soviet Union occupied the eastern half of Germany and with it a number of German camera manufacturing plants. Some of these plants were left in place in Germany, but some were deconstructed and shipped back to the Soviet Union. Or they were emptied of parts and machinery and taken, along with the German camera engineers back east to Soviet plants.”
Especially right after the war, you can see a lot of copies of Leica, Zeiss Ikon and Contax cameras come into being and some are of pretty decent quality since they used the German-made parts and had the help of German engineers in terms of assembly and manufacturing. Eventually those parts ran out and the German engineers grew old and retired. “
“There exists very little detail of the production of FED and Zorki cameras,” says Richard. “In an era when meeting state production quotas were paramount, recording the history of Soviet camera production was never considered. So most of the present history of the FED and Zorki cameras has been reconstructed from retired employees, Ukrainian camera dealers, and information gleaned from camera collections.”
Zeb isn’t exactly sure what drove fake Leica cameras to pop up towards the 90s. “My guess is that a company wanted to cash in on the Leica name and what you really started to see were fake Leica collectible cameras, purporting to be ultra-rare Leicas that theoretically would have exceptional value,” he adds. Zeb also hypothesizes that the rise of the internet helped bring an end to this scam as it was easier to spread the warning and telltale signs of fake Leicas to more potential buyers.
I have even read about a fake Leica M3 made in Poland.
Why Were Screwmount Models Mostly Copied?
Mike Eckman is someone whom I’d describe as an avid vintage camera researcher and collector. He began collecting cameras in 2014, and his first Soviet camera was an FED 2. While looking up information about fake Leica cameras, I stumbled upon his website. His detailed analysis on how to distinguish a fake Leica from a real one was intriguing, and I contacted him to get more information about his findings on the subject. I queried him on why screw-mount lenses were more copied than any other kind of Leica.
“Simplicity,” he succinctly noted. “When the original FED was made in the 1930s, it was intended to be a copy of the Leica II. The Zorki was produced after the war and was just a continuation of the prewar FEDs. When you have a camera that looks very similar to the original, it’s not that hard to smoothen the top plates and re-engrave them with Leica logos. No Soviet manufacturer ever made a copy of a Leica M-series cameras.”
Mike also added that millions of FED and Zorki cameras were made over the years, meaning that people could get their hands on one of them at a fraction of the cost of a genuine Leica. “Also, remember that the whole point of doing this was to make money. He doesn’t own a genuine screw mount Leica himself as yet. “I have several Soviet FEDs and Zorkis, most of which are in perfect working order that are a lot of fun to shoot and produce wonderful images.”
Richard feels this could also be because lenses for such mounts were available in plenty. “The screw mount was likely chosen because of the range and quantity of Leica and third-party lenses available with that mount,” he notes.
“Easier to make, easier to copy,” feels Zeb. “The M39 screw-mount was being used by several companies even before WWII. And why not? If Leica was going to create a superb camera that used this lens mount, you might as well have your cheaper camera that also used it, so you could ride on the coattails of Leica’s popularity, so to speak.” Zeb continued to relate that after the War and the acquisition of all those parts and expertise from Germany, it just became easier to keep working within this system.
“As far as the later fakes of the 90s, again I think it has to do with the perceived collectible value, not to mention it is easier to make a fake Leica M39 camera than it is to make a fake Leica M3 or M4. The simpler the camera, the easier it is to fake it.”
Most modern FED or Zorki reproductions of the Leica II are quite gaudy and embellished.
How Long Were Fake Leica Cameras Made For?
“FED and Zorki and Canon were all making Leica-esque rangefinders through the 50s, 60s, and 70s,” says Zeb Andrews. “Maybe even longer in the case of the Soviet companies. Eventually, I know the market shifted away from rangefinder cameras to SLRs with the introduction of the Nikon F.” Zeb continues to say that the Leica M3 in 1954 upped the bar for a rangefinder. When the standard that’s available to the public goes up, then the value of other, older products go down. To this end, Zeb reasoned that the earlier models began to have declining value, and with declining value comes less incentive to make/clone them.
“One thing that is different from then vs. now is that at first, these fake Leicas were sold as the real thing,” says Mike Eckman. “Unless you knew what to look for when comparing the real thing compared to a counterfeit, many people likely bought these thinking they were the real thing. Nowadays, especially on eBay, most of them are sold as ‘Leica copies’ correctly identifying them as Soviet-era cameras.”
“It is reasonable to assume the first Soviet Leica copies were made between 1932 and 1934, probably as soon as the Leica II was introduced in 1932. The FED was made in Kharkiv, Ukraine; the Zorki was made by KMZ in Krasnogorsk in the Moscow Oblast. Most fakes probably came from Ukraine, but almost certainly engineers from other countries were capable of making Leica copies. It is worth noting that Soviet fakes of quality Japanese cameras exist, as does a Zorki copy of the English Reid,” says Richard.
“Fake Leica cameras are still made today,” clarifies Richard. “A search of eBay will return many Leica copies for sale. Most are identified that they are not Leicas. But once they get into the secondary market, like antique stores, they are often offered at high prices and as genuine Leicas. Wehrmacht cameras are the most popular fakes, some being fashioned from real civilian wartime Leica bodies.”
Countering the Fake Leica Movement
“I also don’t believe there was any official attempt by Leitz or anyone to counter the movement,” says Mike. “People just became more educated as to what a real Leica is vs. a fake.” Why Leica didn’t set out to educate camera buyers more about fakes is something left to the imagination for now. “I believe that as more of the fakes became more ornate with strange colors and engravings with swastikas, Berlin Olympics, and other ornamental decorations, people became more suspicious of the authenticity of the cameras,” he adds, noting that this is just his opinion.
Zeb also feels buyers just got more knowledgeable about fakes and knockoffs over the last couple of decades. “I might think the rise of the internet helped bring an end to this scam as it was easier to spread the warning and telltale signs of fake Leicas to more potential buyers. But that is just a hypothesis on my part,” he says.
I believe that as more of the fakes became more ornate with strange colors and engravings with swastikas, Berlin Olympics, and other ornamental decorations, people became more suspicious of the authenticity of the cameras.
As more information becomes widely available on the internet today, it gets easier to do your own research before purchasing any camera online. Today, some of these older Leica copies and knockoffs might fetch a pretty decent price if you find the right collector. But could they really compare to an original Leica in terms of build quality and photography heritage? Meanwhile, my search for the ideal Leica to add to my camera collection continues.