Rule Number One, which under no conditions must ever be violated, is very simple. Do not buy anything out of the Netherlands under any conditions. I could write for hours about this tip and the consequences of violating it but will just say "DON'T DO IT. There is a gang of camera butchers working out of the Netherlands selling cameras advertised to be "superb" or "CLA'd" such as Contaxes, Super Ikontas and other Zeiss cameras. These cameras have been totally wrecked and are extraordinarily expensive to make right. I've seen enough of them to never want to see another.
Rule Number Two is to never buy a camera out of Europe unless you can avoid it. The problem with European cameras is that they have all been through at least one or more wars. They may also have been worked on by the criminal camera wrecking gang in the Netherlands even though the camera is being sold out of another country. The USA was the prime market for Zeiss because sales in the USA generated DOLLARS. Keep in mind that during the 1930's there was a big depression and so Zeiss targeted the USA and sent only its best products to the USA. Then, after World War II Germany needed dollars very badly and so the same thing happened. The highest quality Zeiss cameras are available in the USA and you can find every modem available here. There is no need to take the risk of buying a camera out of Europe.
Rule No. 3 is never buy anything out of the City of Los Angeles, California without negotiating a return and refund agreement with the seller using the Ebay messaging system. Both the Netherlands and Los Angeles have world class camera butchers working there who specialize in the ruination of Contax equipment, making it look pretty and then selling it on Ebay.
Rule No. 4 is to always remember the following: There is not, never has been, and never will be a cheap good Contax. The Contax is the highest expression of photographic art and people tend to quickly fall in love with the one they buy for the simple reason it is true art. The finest engineers Germany could produce designed them. The finest artisan craftsmen, using the finest machines and the finest materials available in the world made these cameras. The Contax was tremendously expensive when new. Now, they are available cheaply because they don't work right. They don't' work right because they are old and their lubricants have dried up and because many of them have been badly maintained or have been worked on by camera butchers. There are also Contaxes that don't work right because they have been used up. No machine lasts forever. There are Contaxes on the market that have taken so many pictures they are simply worn out. Many Contaxes were sold to professional photographers who simply used them up.
Rule No. 5 is be deeply suspicious. These days there is a great demand for classic 35mm rangefinder cameras. No one is making them and the top of the heap of 35mm rangefinder cameras is the Contax. There are many unscrupulous sellers who "fix up" a Contax to make it appear to be working so that it can be sold for a good price. These cameras are opened, oil is squirted on the mechanism and then the shutter springs are over tightened. It is very easy to tighten the shutter springs without opening the camera. This makes it easy to tighten them far beyond normal limits and to do a lot of damage to the shutter. Beware of all Contaxes on the market today that are advertised to have been "CLA'd" or to be "Working". These words translate into "Shutter springs are over tightened".
Over tightening the shutter springs in a Contax does the opposite of what many people suppose it will do. Tightening the springs decreases the high speeds of 1/250, 1/500 and 1/1250. An aged Contax will usually blank at the speed of 1/1250. This is normal behavior for a typical Contax in "as found" condition. When the shutter springs are over tightened the camera butcher will tighten them unit the shutter no longer blanks when the speed is set at 1/1250. When this is done the actual speed is about 1/300.
Over tightening the shutter springs causes three kinds of very serious and expensive damage:
A. The excess force exerted by the over tightened springs does severe damage to the fabric shutter tapes. The tapes pull down the upper shutter curtain. When these tapes are subjected to excess force by over tightened springs they will fray and become fuzzy. This fuzziness retards the movement of the lower shutter curtain as it slides down them when the shutter is released. This sliding also causes accelerated fraying and fuzzing. Eventually the tapes must be replaced. Fortunately, the tape used in the pre war Contax I, II and III and the post war Contax IIa and IIIa are interchangeable and so this damage can be repaired.
B. When the lower shutter curtain descends it is stopped by shutter cords. The shutter cords set the bottom position of the lower shutter curtain. They also pull up the lower curtain when the shutter is wound. These cords in all Contaxes are all at least 55 years old. The excess spring force will cause one or both of them to snap. The problem is there is no substitute for original Zeiss made shutter cord. There is only a very very limited supply. Replacement of the cords is a big and complex job. It is very expensive.
C. The Contax shutter is made of of very finely made slats manufactured out of thin aluminum held together by long hinges.. Excess shutter spring tension will bend and stretch these slats making the shutter curtains longer than they should be. This shutter curtain lengthening causes many problems with the setting of shutter speeds and overall camera mechanism synchronization. There's no way to repair this problem. There are no more replacement shutters available except from donor camera bodies. A shutter that has been stretched to the pont where it must be replaced is extremely expensive to replace. Shutter curtain stretching also increases the friction of the hinges and this will affect the 1/1250 speed in a way that cannot be corrected except by replacement of the shutter curtain.
Rule No. 6 is to keep the amount of money you are going to end up spending in mind. These days (2013) you can buy a good amateur owned Contax IIIa with a 50mm f1.5 lens on Ebay for about $350.00. Then, to have it completely restored here so that it will give you decades of reliable and accurate service, will cost about $700.00. So, to get a good Contax IIIa the final out of pocket cost will be about $1050.00. There is no way to avoid this. This is because the Contax is German made. German made means that it must be exactly and precisely in the condition its designers interned it should be in if it is to be both accurate and reliable. In my experience very few (I've found none so far) camera repair people have the experience, skills, patience, materials and parts necessary to do this. There is no short cut route to a Contax that is accurate and reliable. There are two ways to learn this. One can read what is written on this page and believe it or one can spend money to find out the hard and expensive way.
There's almost no way you can go wrong if you can buy a Contax with a lens on it for $50.00 or less to put on your shelf as a collectable paper weight.. If you are going to pay more you need to keep some things in mind, particularly if you intend to use the camera to take pictures. The following tips are all based upon my experiences with Contax cameras purchased on Ebay. If you are interested in getting what you think you are paying for I strongly suggest you consider the following before moving forward to purchase a Contax camera on Ebay or anywhere else for that matter..
Please remember that most sellers are honest, but it is still possible to buy a bad camera from a sincere person who knows nothing about it's history or who has had it "serviced" prior to sale and sincerely believes this servicing was properly done. Many honest sellers believe the camera being sold is in good condition. It is also human nature to accentuate the good points about a thing being put up for sale and to minimize its bad points.
My experience is a 75% disappointment ratio. This is to say that about 75% of the cameras I buy disappoint me when they arrive. Fortunately I have the skills, materials and resources to make most things right in a bad camera.
Before placing your bid or making a sale commitment be sure to consider the following and ask the seller the following questions, as applicable, and receive a satisfactory answer before buying. Keep in mind that most people who buy a Contax buy it for life. In your lifetime you are not going to make very many lifetime purchases and so most people don't have the experience to understand how careful one must be when buying something that you will quickly become emotionally permanently married to. Contaxes are the highest expression of Camera Art and this makes them very special. Take your time, check everything out, ask lots of questions, and be very ready to have extreme patience and walk away from a deal that is just not quite perfect.
One way of telling a very well used camera is to look at the top plate just to the left of the wind knob. A camera that has taken many pictures will have a crescent wipe mark visible on the top plate where the thumb has rubbed while winding the camera.
Another good tip is to import the pictures shown on the auction and then examine them critically by manipulating the size, brightness and contrast. Some sellers intentionally post very dark or intentionally fuzzy pictures to hide very bad paint and some sellers just don't know how to take good pictures. The black paint on a Contax will not show up properly unless the picture is lightened considerably. The way to import the picture is to place the cursor on the picture then click the right mouse button. Follow the menu to import the picture to a folder in your computer then use your picture editor to manipulate and examine it critically.
Keep in mind that the criminal gang of camera butchers working out of the Netherlands are supreme artists when it comes to over painting a camera that has been dragged behind a car. They can over paint bad paint and worn out leather so finely the camera looks brand new on an Ebay picture. But, when this cheap over paint is removed what remains is a wreck.
Be deeply suspicious of any Contax camera picture that is not detailed enough to allow you to examine the camera in extremely great detail.
A good rule of thumb is that any Contax you buy will need a complete overhaul in order to be accurate, reliable and adjusted so that it will not self destruct..
Another good rule of thumb is that if the camera looks really beautiful and is truly pristine it has a serious problem that prevents it from taking good pictures that no one has been able to figure out in the last 50 or so years. I have had the experience of purchasing some cameras that were very beautiful externally, but inside they showed the work of many desperate angry hands with tools in them. The good thing about these cameras is that they were not used and so when restored they are effectively brand new. The cost is higher to restore one of these cameras but they are new.
There is another kind of beautiful camera to avoid. This is a camera that has been beautified through the use of Kiev camera external trim parts or a complete repainting using cheap black paint. There are some active EBay sellers working out of the Netherlands who are expert in exploiting the resolution limitations of the Ebay JPEG photographs to hide the small signs of a black paint repaint job, silver paint on worn out rusted screw heads, substitute parts, and other dishonest schemes designed to defraud honest buyers. There are even Contax I's being sold out of russia and the Netherlands with a very high quality modern plastic stick on artificial leather that is imprinted with very good looking Zeiss-Ikon stamps.
The simple fact of the matter is that Contax IIa and IIIa cameras are truly rare. In the days before Ebay it used to be a special event to see even one of them at a very large camera show. Ebay has made them seem to be relatively abundant but they are not. Because of this rarity there are no good sources from which one can choose a camera that is not old and does not need a complete overhaul.. I have had personal experiences with all of the sources and have listed them below for your use.
When I opened them they were in completely original condition and they'd been sent to me because they didn't work properly. One was even sent to me from Japan. So understand that any camera you may buy from these sources will need a complete overhaul to be reliable and operate properly.
There's a huge list of Internet camera resources on the Internet. You'll find many Camera Stores on this list and you will find Contax IIa and IIIa cameras at some of them. The list is known as the Jeff Albro list. Here's the link to the Jeff Albro List: ALBRO CAMERA LIST
Here's a little tip about what USA Camera store "Excellent" really means. I know a Japanese seller who travels the camera show circuit around the nation. One day he confided to me that in Japan it is the saying that USA Excellent really means "Well Used". They're right. Keep this in mind.
There is a way around the Ebay difficulties as you will see in section 6 following.
This is a picture of the inside of a Contax II with Mint external cosmetics. The plastic electrician's tape is holding the shutter in place. There is a screw missing on the left and a metal brace missing on the right. If you look very carefully just behind the focusing knob you can see the little slot that holds the broken part of the brace that is still remaining. The screw and the metal brace should be holding the shutter in place. The owner of this camera purchased it from what he considered to be a very reputable Internet Camera store. The tape is very fresh. I have the parts to make this camera right and will use them at no additional cost as part of the camera overhaul. Do you suppose this owner would have purchased this camera if he knew it was held together with tape?
From the outside this is a true Excellent cosmetic condition Contax III. It is a real German made Contax body and all of its parts are German and original except for the shutter. It has a Kiev shutter in it. Kiev shutters range in quality from a "10" (equivalent to German quality), to a (1) (real trash). The shutter in this camera is a "-5" and is the worst I have ever seen. The winding shaft on the shutter is too short. In order to make the wind knob fit on the camera the shutter speed indicator bezel (the angled piece just below the winding knob) was ground down on its bottom. So much metal had to be removed from this bezel that its inner lip, by which it is held into place with two screws, was completely removed. The result is that this bezel is held into place by very cleverly made spring clips which provide just enough friction to keep it from flying loose when the film winding knob is lifted and rotated to change shutter speeds. The clips do not keep it from rotating if you pinch it in your fingers and twist.
There once was a time when there was only one kind of Contax I, II, III, IIa or IIIa and this was a factory fresh unit. But about 50 years have elapsed since Zeiss suddenly announced the end of rangefinder camera production. Since then every Contax IIa and IIIa has obtained a history of source, use and maintenance. Today, when a person sets out to find and buy a Contax IIa or IIIa, these factors need to be kept in mind in order to avoid cameras that have a bad history.
When Zeiss announced the end of Contax IIa and IIIa rangefinder camera production it came suddenly and without any notice. A catalog was issued to announce the start of the Contarex line and this catalog announced the end of rangefinder camera production and then end of all lenses and accessories for rangefinder cameras. At that time the Contax IIa cost the same as a brand new Chevrolet automobile. It was not just a "big ticket" item, it was a "huge ticket item" and there were people who had scrimped and saved for years to have one. The sudden demand was gigantic and dealers screamed to the distributors for cameras. In response to this demand spare parts were scavenged from every repair depot to produce cameras for sale.
A Contax I, II, III, IIa or IIIa camera is hand made out of hand made parts. This means that the parts from one camera will not necessarily fit into another. There are very wide differences in parts sizes from camera to camera. When cameras were made at the factory the assemblers had a very large assortment of parts from which to choose to assemble a camera. But when the spare parts or multiple parts cameras were used there were not so many parts from which to choose and some cameras were made that could not possibly work right.
Another element of complexity that enters this mix is that Zeiss introduced many internal changes to IIa and IIIa parts during the period of production between 1950 and 1964. There were three improvements to the mid range speed controller, five improvements were made to the rangefinder module, parts which were once bare brass became nickel plated, gold prisms were changed to platinum, the shutter tape was changed twice, all these are to name but a few. When a camera was made out of spare parts, parts from every time of production were incorporated into the camera resulting in a camera made out of parts that reflect the entire production history. So for a person like me who sees a great many Contaxes they are not at all difficult to identify.
The Contax IIa and IIIa are so valuable today that people are engaging in the same process now. Non working cameras are purchased at a low price so that parts from two or three of them can be combined to produce a high priced Contax for sale to unsuspecting victims.
My experience with these repair shop made Contax IIa and IIIa cameras is that they are always a lot of extra work and trouble to make right.
The question is, how can one avoid becoming a victim of a modern greedy camera butcher who is busy manufacturing Frankenstein Contaxes? The answer is that sometimes it's easy and sometimes its not, but it can be done and here are the main things to look for to avoid being stuck with a Frankenstein Contax IIa or IIIa: