Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Contess-Nettel Ergo: A Spy Camera I Should Not Have Sold

In 1957, browsing a second-hand shop in Long Eaton, Derbyshire, with my father for a plate camera, we came across a strange camera that only since the arrival of the internet have I have been able to identify. It was complete in a special case and included a couple, I think, of slide holders of the VP (vest pocket) size (6 x 4.5 cm). I was desperate to try processing plates. Why this was so I cannot remember but we came home clutching the strange device having paid £6 for it. It was, as I eventually discovered, a Contessa-Nettel Ergo — a 'spy' camera made in the early years of the 20th century.

It had an f4.5 Tessar lens, a shutter that worked and focusing could be done either using a ground-glass screen or by setting the distance on a dial. I bought a packet of plates and used it a few times until the plates ran out but its use was very limited. I did not want to take photographs at 90° to the direction I was looking in and it did nothing a real plate camera did in terms of movements. The enthusiasm for it gone, it soon went in part-exchange for another camera I soon regretted buying, an East German Zeiss Werra I. I was allowed £4.10s as part-exchange value.

After I eventually identified the camera I had bought and sold, I thought little more about it until a few weeks ago I came across an auctioneer's website showing how much these cameras and their predecessor, the Nettel Argus, fetch these days. Then I came across one for sale on eBay for £1750 or best offer. Looking more widely, I see they have been making £1000-2000 over the past few years. And I sold one for £4.10s. In terms of retail prices, my trade-in-value at the present day would be around £80. If only it had just been put in a cupboard and kept.

The following photograph shows a Contessa-Nettel Ergo for sale in the USA at present on eBay (Item Number 280746935784) is reproduced with the permission of gokevincameras.


It is not immediately obvious how this spy camera operates. It was made first by Nettel then by Contessa-Nettel when those two companies merged in 1919 and then by Zeiss Ikon when there were further mergers in 1926. A similar camera was also made or marketed in Japan.

The camera was made to look like a monocular but the large objective was a fake. In the model I had, I think the aperture control was the rim of the fake lens. That set the aperture for the real lens that was concealed behind a curved plate on the side of the monocular. You can see it on the top of the camera in the photograph. The viewfinder had a mirror or prism with a viewing port at 90° to the eyepiece. The following diagram I have thrown together shows the layout.

So, to take a photograph at 90° to the direction you seemed to be looking, you had to have a plate in the camera with the slide removed. You had to set the aperture and speed as well as the focus (none of these controls was on the lens itself). Then when you pressed the release two things happened: first the panel in the side of the body was lifted, and then the shutter was released.

As I said above, the camera could also be operated as a conventional small plate camera by using the ground-glass screen and hood.

So who actually bought these cameras? They were obviously popular throughout continental Europe as this French advertisement shows:


Was candid photography that popular? Did the average photographer covet such a camera?  Or the industrial spy? Or the real spy? Or were dirty old men using them to take attractive young women? I know which I would bet on.
Whatever the reason, the Argus and the Ergo are now items for the collector and unlikely to be found in a junk shop in Long Eaton, Derbyshire.