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Cigarette packs & handbags: Cold War-era spy cams are up for sale and most still work

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There’s even a camera built into a man’s jacket, with the lens hidden behind a button and fired from a ‘trigger’ in the pocket.

On July 12, Aston’s Auctioneers of Dudley, England (about halfway between Liverpool and London), will feature the Russian Collection auction, 25 lots of rare and unusual cameras collected from the Cold War days, when Russia merely constituted much of the U.S.S.R. and Germany was still separated into two states.

“To find as many [cameras] in one place is pretty unusual,” says Tim Goldsmith, photographic consultant to Aston’s. The unnamed source for the auction had been collecting Soviet spy cameras for 30 to 40 years, as far back as when smuggling anything of this sort in or out of the Soviet Bloc would have needed spycraft itself. “Obviously, that’s when East Germany was still completely surrounded,” says Goldsmith. Until recently, finding such a trove in the West was nearly miraculous. “And it’s unheard of in the U.K., though it’s dribbling out since the whole universe discovered these things on the internet.”

Aston’s hosts three camera auctions a year, yet this one, as Goldsmith put it, “has fired everyone’s imagination.”

Manufactured from 1942 to 1990, these cameras are museum-quality, and nearly all the lots are in working order. The end of the Soviet Union, combined with advances in tiny digital cameras, means that collectors have limited opportunities to score authentic, old style, film-based spy cameras, let alone ones that still work.

In the sale are several Minox cameras, including a rare Minox Riga, which was the first and smallest sub-miniature ever sold commercially by the brand. Built in Riga, the capital of Latvia, it was in production only from 1938 to 1943.

Microfilming, fingerprinting, and copying cameras are also on the block, but the highlights are the several spy cameras disguised as ordinary objects.

These include cameras hidden in an attaché case, a cigarette pack, and one built into an umbrella. There’s even a camera built into a man’s jacket, with the lens hidden behind one of the buttons and fired from a ‘trigger’ in the jacket pocket.

Lot 178 is an IMBIR 16mm silent movie camera disguised in a ladies shoulder bag. According to Goldsmith, this is a kind of pre-GoPro apparatus “as used in ‘Honey Trap’ scenarios” of yore, when female spies would gather kompromat via illicit encounters.

In total, there are 16 spy cameras and about a dozen accessories, including a Soviet C-215 Surveillance Periscope used by the Soviet KGB and East German Stasi to look over walls and around corners. Goldsmith declined to discuss pricing estimates, saying, “It’s really difficult to value these things … there’s only one or two sold every year.” Looking at concurrent collectibles auctions that Aston’s is running, nothing tops the low four figures.

If you buy these with the intent to use them, many of these Russian miniatures take Minox film, the tiny stuff of James Bond films (it’s still available), but others will require a deft hand in the dark room.

“Some lots include a splitter,” says Goldsmith. “If you can be bothered to do all the fussing around in a dark room, this will take standard 35mm film and split it into strips you can wind into a camera’s mini cassettes.”

Goldsmith calls his favorite lot in the sale “completely ridiculous”—a spy camera disguised as a camera. He said that when they picked up the collection, the company van ended up full to the brim with cameras. “We must’ve had 40 or 50 huge boxes, but [Lot 411] was the only one that I could not for the life of me work out how to operate.”

After much tinkering, it took a call to the manufacturer, Moscow-based KMZ (Krasnogorski Mekhanicheskii Zavod, known colloquially as Zenit because of its Cyrillic name, ЗЕНИТ), to figure it out. Goldsmith learned that, hidden inside this run-of-the-mill Zenit E model camera, is a secret KMZ F-21 Ajax-12 spy camera measuring about 3 inches by 2 inches by 1 inch. A small flap on the side of the Zenit opens to expose the F-21’s barely visible lens. You can be facing forward, carrying it on your shoulder or holding it in your hand, yet snapping shots 90 degrees to your left.

“If you’re somewhere where you’re not allowed to take photographs, a security guard would say, ‘Oh, he can’t take a photo, his camera’s closed in its case around his neck.’”

The secret camera is driven like a clock, with wound springs and minute mechanical gears. Goldsmith explains that when you press a tiny button on the bottom of the camera, “a little piece of string opens that flap on the side. The shutter fires, the flap closes, and the film winds again, ready for the next picture.”

“Certainly a gadget worthy of Q,” he adds, referring to MI6’s famous quartermaster who provided 007 with his spycraft tech. -Bloomberg

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