SCOTT SIMON, host:
Over the course of 50 years, Jack Naylor has amassed the world's largest private collection of cameras and photographs, more than 31,000 items in all. The collection includes U2 spy plane camera, a 157-year-old photo of circus performer Tom Thumb and the camera that shot Playboy centerfolds for 30 years. It's all housed beneath Mr. Naylor's Massachusetts home, and now his entire collection is up for sale. Andrea Shea reports.
ANDREA SHEA reporting:
Jack Naylor's standard poodle, Black Magic, stands guard over the collector's contemporary suburban home, for good reason. There's a lot to watch over here. Take the ornate megalithic scopio(ph) in the living room.
Mr. JACK NAYLOR (Collector): This is the hit of the collection because it makes black and white pictures into color pictures. It's almost like magic. It was made in Venice in 1862.
SHEA: It's about four feet tall. It's made of ebonized wood inlaid with ivory and it's one of a kind.
Mr. NAYLOR: Theses steps lead to a museum.
SHEA: The core of Naylor's collection is underground in a 4,000-square foot, climate-controlled basement museum. On the way down, we pass original pictures taken by Civil War photographer Matthew Brady, American Indian photographer Edward Curtis and a picture of Josef Stalin's mother taken by Life magazine photographer Margaret Bourke-White. Then with a twinkle in his eye, the 86-year-old collector reaches for the knob, opens the door and turns on many lights.
(Soundbite of light switches)
Mr. NAYLOR: It's a rather overwhelming sight.
SHEA: That's an understatement. The room looks like the world's largest camera shop fused with about 10 Smithsonian exhibitions.
Mr. NAYLOR: In this showcase, we have the beginning of photography. The first camera on Earth is in front of you. It's called a Borqueen Dragonet Daguerreotype(ph) camera made in 1843, and it has statuary of two dragons, one on either side of the camera.
SHEA: Daguerreotype cameras took the earliest photographs. Their eerie, almost holographic images were made by bathing silver-coated plates with lethal doses of mercury. The obsessive Naylor once landed in the hospital after trying his hand at the process. He says he owns over 1,000 Daguerreotype pictures and 12 of the world's 100 surviving cameras. The Boston area was a hotbed of early photography, and Naylor says he found nine in a woman's attic only two miles away.
Mr. NAYLOR: Couldn't believe what I was looking at. Now some of them have been taken apart and that's fine. I don't care. I'll put them back together. This was the biggest thing I'd ever seen in Daguerreotype cameras, and I got them.
Mr. MARTIN SANDLER (Author): You can trace the whole history of photography through the cameras he has.
SHEA: Martin Sandler is the author of 20 books on the history of photography. He's spent countless hours in Jack Naylor's museum doing research and says the collection is peerless.
Mr. SANDLER: The people at the George Eastman House, which is perhaps the greatest photographic museum in the country--I know when they have terribly important visitors from overseas who come in and want to see a collection, they pay for them to put them on a bus and send them down to Jack's museum. It's that good.
SHEA: And it's open to the public by appointment. Jack Naylor has been piecing together his collection for over 50 years. The self-made millionaire was orphaned at age two, became a fighter pilot in the Second World War and earned a degree in engineering through the GI Bill. Naylor says he built his fortune by inventing an automotive thermostat in the 1960s.
Mr. NAYLOR: That same thermostat was adopted for every car and truck made on Earth, and that's still the case.
SHEA: With manufacturing plants in 13 countries, Naylor traveled widely and often. He says he always prowled for photographic gems. His passion is spy cameras. He has a bunch of them disguised as watches, rings, pens, books, cigarette packs and purses. Behind a glass case, a sexy Japanese camera fits snugly into a hot pink garter. Naylor says one of his best finds is the Doppel Sport. The Germans strapped this lightweight camera to homing pigeons during World War I and sent the winged photographers over French lines. During the Cold War, Naylor says he was one of the few Americans to get into the Soviet Union.
Mr. NAYLOR: I was met each of my four visits by the same young KGB man, a spy. I told him I was a collector and I would love to have some of the things that you have, knowing that most Russians will do anything for money at that time. And we agreed that whatever he brought to me the next time, I would buy. How he got them, I didn't really care.
SHEA: One of the items, he says, is the world's smallest camera, code named The Little Creator(ph). The collector's obvious delight raises the question: Why is he giving this all up?
Mr. NAYLOR: My wife has no interest in it. My seven children have no interest in it, so who's going to do it?
SHEA: And who's going to pay the $20 million asking price? Photography writer Martin Sandler has an idea.
Mr. SANDLER: My guess is that it will go to a collector that Jack has outbid continually for items over the years who can finally say, `Aha! Now I've got it.'
SHEA: Sandler worries that wherever it goes, the collection will not be as accessible to researchers like him as it is now. Jack Naylor shares those concerns. He says he's not donating it to a museum because, quite bluntly, he wouldn't live long enough to see it installed. And this is the quickest, easiest way for him to provide for his heirs. But Naylor says he does want to sell the collection to an individual or institution that will keep it together.
Mr. NAYLOR: If I wanted to get the best price for it, I would break it up and sell it at auction. I would get twice as much as I'm asking. But I don't care to do that. I want other people hopefully to be able to enjoy it as much as I have.
SHEA: There is one item Jack Naylor will not give up, a rather naughty 1843 Daguerreotype he keeps tucked away in a desk in his office. For NPR News, this is Andrea Shea.
SIMON: And you can see a spy camera housed in a cigarette pack and other curiosities from the Naylor collection on our Web site, npr.org.