Bellamy Hunt, the man behind Japan Camera Hunter (JCH) in Tokyo, is a sort of antique picker who ferrets out old cameras that have history or provenance, on behalf of a worldwide clientele. Recently he was offered a camera by the family of actor Errol Flynn's son Sean. The story is almost incredible in the vividness and significance of its every detail. Bellamy describes locating and re-homing Vietnam war photographer Sean Flynn's Leica camera as "a once-in-a-career event." Tough to argue with that.
A very short version is that Sean Flynn was kidnapped in Cambodia with photojournalist Dana Stone in 1970 and never seen again. "There were reports that both Flynn and Stone were kidnapped by the Vietcong and then handed to the Khmer Rouge before being executed, but remains were never found. Flynn’s mother spent her life and fortune trying to find a trace of her son, but sadly it was to no avail. Sean Flynn was declared legally dead in 1984," writes Hunt.
The camera is a Leica M2 with a steel-rim 35mm Summilux and "a strap that was hand fashioned from a parachute cord and a hand grenade pin" left in Flynn's Paris apartment.
It's a terrific story. You can read it in its entirety and see the eloquent illustrations at the JCH website. The camera will go to a new owner in Saigon.
A camera with history indeed.
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Featured Comments from:
Ken Tanaka: "It is indeed a good story that I, coincidentally, read last week. I knew of Sean Flynn and his disappearance but the story filled some holes in my knowledge. He was sort of a later-day Robert Capa.
"Memorabilia has always puzzled me. Being in the presence of so-and-so’s mitt from the 1938 World Series, the brushes used by so-and-so to paint a renowned 15th-century painting, the camera used by so-and-so to take his/her most renowned photos...can certainly give an admirer a tingle. But what real value are these artifacts beyond future resale to some other poor tingler at a profit? And what happens when time eventually extinguishes these tingles? Someone will be left with some very expensive junk!
"But the bigger question: what ephemera of today’s generation will be treated as a devotional artifacts in the future? I really can’t think of anything!"
Mike replies: I have that same sort of conceptual puzzlement about such objects. A number of years ago I owned Jack Lemmon's Leica M6 (along with a letter of provenance). I never could figure out what it should mean to me, and finally decided it meant nothing, really, so I sold it. (I should add that I'm not particularly a Jack Lemmon fan. Don't dislike him, but he means no more to me than any other good actor.) On the other hand, a friend has a 35mm camera that was decorated by his friend, Keith Haring. He continued to use the camera and eventually rubbed off all but the faintest traces of of the Haring embellishments...a mistake, in my view, as that camera might have been worth a lower-middle-class salary by now. I'd have taken the money. (Maybe he'll see this and speak up with his own thoughts.)
Also a number of years ago, I had the opportunity to buy the Leica enlarging lens that Lee Friedlander had owned and used for many years to enlarge his 35mm work. I still regret not buying it (it wasn't considered L. Friedlander ephemera at the time, or at least only enough to command a bit of a premium, some fraction more than its value as a lens). But why should I feel that way? It's not like the object contains the light that was beamed through it. I really have no clear idea why I wanted it or what I would have done with it.
hugh crawford adds: "Re: that Keith Haring camera. It would probably be worth something if it was signed or had some sort of provenance. As it is, it's just one of many things that we sat around doodling on when Keith was best known as the busboy at danceteria with the glasses he was always re-painting. I once had a lot of stuff he doodled on including that car that you posted a photo of a while back, and even a few drawings, all lost now along with some Andy Warhol drawings on dollar bills and a bunch of similar stuff.
"The only famous-ish previously-owned camera I have is a Canon 1Ds once owned by Matthieu Ricard, 'the happiest man in the world' if you Google it. It’s a long story…don’t think it’s a big deal, but who knows. I also have the wheel that kept Paul Newman from winning LeMans, also a long story. The rest of the car recently sold for 4.4 million dollars (he came in second after the wheel jammed on the axle during a pit stop and it took a half hour to replace the axle) so maybe there is something worthwhile there."
Dave Kerr: "I'm reminded of the time a Vietnamese student came to class with a somewhat beat-up old Nikon. Her father was there in the late '60s, early '70s. She didn't have much of its history other than it once belonged to a famous news reporter. Crudely etched on the base plate was the name 'T. Koppell '66-69.' I photographed it and sent Mr. Koppell a photo and the story, thinking he might want to have it back. No reply. Like you, for a fleeting moment, I thought I would have liked to own it."
Larry Gebhardt: "I bought renowned Miata writer, and sometimes photographer, Mike Johnston's old Miata. I expect the collectors to be lining up at my door any day now. While waiting I'll continue to drive it on nice days."
Mike replies: Now that has provenance!
Geoff Wittig: "Many amateur artists obsess about the tools used by artists they admire. Any skilled painter giving a presentation or workshop will be bombarded with questions about which specific pigments, linen supports or brushes they use, because aspiring painters hope to learn some secret of tools or materials that will reliably lead to a masterpiece. But of course it's the artist's thought process, the thousand decisions over the course of a painting's creation that contain the magic, not the tools. It's no different with cameras and lenses. I could sleep with Henri Cartier-Bresson's Leica under my pillow, but my street photography would still suck."
Ilkka: "Tim Page has written two books that talk quite a bit about Sean Flynn. Page After Page is an autobiography where he describes their adventures as photojournalists in Vietnam. Another, later book, Derailed in Uncle Ho's Victory Garden, talks about when Page went back to Vietnam after the war and spent some time searching for Sean Flynn. Interesting reads both of them."
Gary B: "I read this article when it first appeared on the Japan Camera Hunter website a couple of weeks ago. I'm currently living in Hanoi, so at the weekend whilst passing the recently opened (last year) Leica boutique store I called in to ask when the exhibition of the camera and related photography would open. The staff knew nothing about it!"