Among them is a section of hidden cameras. While glossing over the threat of nuclear destruction, invasion of Afghanistan, the KGB and so on, life seemed so much simpler in that era of the Cold War.
The selection of lots on offer at West Midlands saleroom Aston’s Auctioneers on July 12 even has a touch of Inspector Clouseau about it mixed in with the inevitable James Bond gadget feel.
Can you imagine a camera hidden as… a camera? Brilliant.
Aston’s is selling about 25-30 spy cameras as part of this impressive single-owner group of Soviet cameras which is being offered in two parts this year, during the overall photography auctions the Dudley firm launched in 2016, when photography specialist Tim Goldsmith became involved.
Goldsmith says the vendor, a collector, had “what is absolutely the best collection of Soviet cameras in the UK and one of probably the top five in the world”.
“This guy had been collecting for 30-40 years when it was really difficult to get anything out of the Soviet Union. before it all collapsed,” he adds. “It is very unusual to collect this. I collect cameras in general, and I sort of collected Russian cameras in the 80s myself, but only way you could get stuff in the mid ‘70s and 80s was if you happened to go to a camera show and a Russian dealer had brought stuff over – there was no internet of course.
“He went to Russia a couple of times and I guess made some contacts there and got stuff put to one side or sent over, and basically he did all the ground work – now you can just sit in your living room in your pyjamas and search for things online.”
Although Goldsmith has seen some of these spy cameras in dribs and drabs on the internet, he has never found such an excellent, extensive collection offered together as this. Some are featured as classic examples in Jean Loup Princelle's The Authentic Guide to Russian and Soviet Cameras, considered the collecting 'bible' in this field.
See accompanying illustrations for stand-out lots coming up on July 12.
Goldsmith says: “The end of the Soviet Union, combined with advances in tiny digital cameras, means that this is probably one of the last opportunities for collectors to obtain a real, old-style, film based spy camera.
“In the sale we have several Minox cameras (the ‘James Bond’ spy camera), including a rare Riga version, plus microfilming, fingerprinting and copying cameras and more, but the highlights are the several disguised spy cameras. These include cameras hidden in a man's attaché case, a lady’s handbag and purse and even in an umbrella.
“My favourite, however, is a camera built into a man’s jacket, with the camera lens hidden behind one of the buttons and fired from a ‘trigger’ in the jacket pocket.”
The first slice of Soviet spy cameras was offered by Aston’s in March and a highlight included a ‘photosniper’ which sold for £3000. Also known as ‘photo rifles’ (the picture above shows why), these are relatively common, but this model was one of about only 200 produced for the Soviet military.
Spy camera caution
Goldsmith does sound a note of caution over this collecting market, saying that many of the cameras for sale on the internet referred to as spy cameras are nothing of the sort.
“Pretty much any camera a knowledgeable collector would refer to as a sub miniature camera is now automatically labelled as a spy camera,” he says. “This title can now be found on everything from tiny modern digital cameras through to cheap, plastic ‘toy’ cameras.
"Although most of these may actually be capable of taking a photograph, and some are even disguised as an everyday object, in reality they would be of no use whatsoever to a real spy.”