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Leica Family Tree

Leica is credited with the development of the 35mm photographic film standard and has produced many remarkable cameras over the past more than 100 years. Highlights include its M-series of rangefinder cameras and the (now discontinued) R-series of single lens reflex cameras, along with their respective M-mount and R-mount lens lines. Many Leicas have achieved iconic status both by photographers and collectors.

Leica Stammbaum
The Leica Stammbaum in Solms, 2013[gmpphoto]

The company has always nurtured its rich history, including by displaying a "Stammbaum" or family tree of its cameras in the entry hall of its headquarters in Solms, Germany. It showed the Ur-Leica of 1914 at the bottom and then all subsequent models of the Leica rangefinder cameras up to the first Leica reflex cameras. At that point the Stammbaum splits into two branches, one for the Leica reflex models and one for the M-rangefinders. The display was updated many times as new cameras were released. It contained virtually all the enthusiast and professional cameras the company had produced (but not its compact film or digital cameras), and measures an impressive 300cm (118in) in height and 222cm (87.5in) in width.

Family Tree in Manchester
The Family Tree in the Leica Store Manchester[leicarumors.com]

Leica also used to have a depiction of the family tree in its product catalog, and Leica fans could buy laminated posters of the print. Vintage versions of these family tree posters can often be found in used camera sales or on ebay (click here to check current listings). Depending on the size of the sheet and the quality of the supporting material, prices nowadays range from $5 to $50.

When Leica moved its headquarters from Solms back to Wetzlar at the end of 2013, it was decided to display the lineage of cameras individually in the Leica Museum and no longer in the form of a family tree. The end of the Stammbaum seemed nigh. However, the tree-frame was acquired by Richard and David Stephens, who own the Leica Store Manchester, and transferred to the UK. They subsequently re-populated the Stammbaum and displayed it in their showroom. Hence, the family tree was kept alive and cared for, even though it was no longer officially supported by Leica itself.

Interview with Dr. Pritchard
Dr. Pritchard in front of the Family Tree[mmotv]

In September 2016, the tree display with all of its 107 different camera models was put up for sale at Christie's in London, as part of the annual "Out of the Ordinary" auction. When presenting the display in the auction showroom Dr. Michael Pritchard, the Director-General of The Royal Photographic Society, explained that the Stammbaum "...tells the complete history of the Leica camera from a technical perspective, a design perspective and it's all arranged in chronological order. So, it really tells that story that's very distinctive and absolutely unique."

The auction at Christie's South Kensington facilities closed in the evening of 14 September with a strong result. Bidding started at £220,000, but was pushed up by Leica collectors in the room and over the phone, before the hammer eventually fell at £300,000. On top of this amount, the winner had to pay the buyer's premium, bringing the total acquisition price to £362,500 (€427,750; $478,500). The Family Tree sale thereby ranks among the very top of recent Leica auctions. The identity of the new Stammbaum owner remains unknown, and it is unclear whether the Family Tree will continue to be accessible to the public or become part of a private collection.

Family Tree print
A print version of the Family Tree
Visitors in Solms
Visitors inspect Leica's camera history[overgaard.dk]
Stammbaum at Christie's
The Stammbaum in the showroom at Christie's[Christie's]
Auction result
A screenshot of the auction outcome[Christie's]

So, is the disappearance of the family tree a loss? Perhaps a popular illustration of camera history indeed got lost. However, Leica made a conscious decision to dismantle the tree and display the cameras it contained individually in the company's new museum in the Leitz Park. It was probably time to turn the page, as digital imaging was upending the industry and bringing about new technologies and camera lines. The effort by the team at the Manchester Leica Store to "save the tree" by acquiring the steel structure and repopulating it with vintage Leica cameras was laudable, but ultimately futile. The original, often very rare and precious, camera models were still in the possession of Leica, and the reconstitution of the tree could not match the quality of the old Stammbaum. Yet, keeping (and insuring) the reconstituted family tree as a store display in Manchester was financially not sustainable, so that the decision to auction it off was a natural one.

Further Reading

More detail on the Leica M-system rangefinders and lenses, as well as the R-system cameras and lenses are available separately on this site. There is also a Leica glossary, in case some terms or expressions are unclear. Finally, some Leica information and promotional materials can be accessed from the pdf downloads page.

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