Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Journey of the Stolen Korona


I've used many different cameras in many different formats over the last 25 years. I confess to being somewhat of a gearhead, but cameras and optics have fascinated me since I was a kid. Of all of those, one of my very favorite formats is 7x17. That's in inches, not centimeters. I bought my first 7x17 in September 1992 from Midwest Photo Supply. It was a Korona manufactured some time before 1928. Originally called a "banquet camera" because it was designed to take pictures of large groups of people when smaller formats weren't up to the task of resolving enough detail for people to be recognizable in large groups. I found it a perfect format for the landscape work I was doing at the time. Here is one of the first images I made with the Korona 7x17 in October 1992:
Ice House Road in Fog, 7x17 platinum print, (sold out)
I was hooked. I loved working with the large, vintage camera that was still in very good condition. Koronas were a lower-end brand in their day. When new, the camera was a little rickety and crude, even by the standards of the day. However, it was a very easy camera to use as long as you compensate for it's limitations. Around this time I was also working through teaching myself the platinum/palladium process which soon became my print medium of choice and has been ever since. Between 1992 and 1999 at least 90% of my best work was done in the 7x17 format, and much of it with the stolen Korona. A small selection of these images including an original platinum print were recently published by North Light Press.

I've grown to dislike the cheesy "look at me with my camera" pictures, but this picture and a few others like it taken in 1995 were the key evidence in proving that this camera was uniquely mine.

Shore Acres, Oregon, 1995 
on a 10th Anniversary Trip with Carol
Proof of Provenance

My good friend and fellow photographer Patrick Alt knows more about BIG, OLD cameras than just about anyone I've known. He also happens to be an extremely talented woodworker, designer and camera builder/restorer and one of the most prolific sheet film photographers I have known. He suggested I could overcome one of the Korona's shortcomings by having him completely rebuild the front standard of the camera (the part that holds the lens) to add tilt and swing movements, which makes the camera much more versatile. His design was also sturdier than the original. So, in 1993 I sent the camera to Patrick and he performed his magic making the camera better than new.

An un-modified, stock Korona 7x17

My Korona 7x17 after modification by Patrick Alt
(picture used in police report below)

Not only did this greatly improve the usability of the camera, it made it distinguishable from every other Korona 7x17 ever made. Lots of these old, wooden cameras don't have serial numbers, so you need some other indications to identify a specific camera. Patrick's fine work certainly did that.

The Original Crime

On September 6, 1997 I experienced every photographer's worst fear: I had a large amount of equipment stolen out of my car in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. Carol and I were on our way from downtown San Francisco out to Ocean Beach where we were meeting some good friends for dinner. We were early, so we stopped in the park and took a walk around a pond to kill some time. I had a trunkful of camera gear and a portfolio case containing about 40 finished 7x17 pt/pd prints. We were away from the car for maybe 20 minutes. When we came back the trunk was open and empty. HOLY SHIT!!!!!! As you can probably imagine, I was beside myself. We went directly to the SFPD Park Station and filed a police report. My portfolio case and prints were found in the park the next day, so I got those back which was a huge relief, but the loss of the gear, especially the 7x17 and some of the wonderful vintage lenses I had for it was killing me. Among a long list of items were my beloved 7x17 Korona/Alt along with 5 filmholders. Here is the original police report (I've redacted parts of the report that aren't relevant to the stolen Korona camera and film holders, as well as personal information):

Police Report P. 1
Police Report P. 2
  I never did see any of that gear again. Until I received this email recently from one Anton Orlov:
 Followed later that day by this one: 
Look familiar?!? Here, let us review in detail:

Unmodified, Stock Korona 7x17
It doesn't take a rocket scientist to determine the two cameras are one and the same and clearly different from a stock, unmodified camera shown above. Yes, after more than 15 years, the camera that was taken from my trunk in Golden Gate Park was now in my email inbox and residing in San Diego with Anton Orlov. And guess what: I want it back! This camera, of the dozens of cameras I've owned in my life, has extremely high sentimental value to me. It became my main camera/format as I was growing into the photographer and printer that I am today. It was modified for me by a good friend who is now suffering from serious health issues and goddamn it, some one took it from me and I want it back! And I am legally entitled to get it back.
"It is an axiom of Anglo-American common law that nobody can pass good title to stolen goods. The true owner of a stolen item may always recover it from its current holder, no matter how many times the item changed hands in between." (Source)
Once I realized the camera in San Diego was the same one taken from me in San Francisco, I jumped on eBay and sure enough, an auction for this camera, three film holders and a lens ended on April 21, 2013. Here is a link to the item, although it will disappear eventually. The seller egl9sun turns out to be David Tribble from Sacramento, California (apparently he also goes by David LeRoy). David was a workshop student of mine many years ago. I am told by Mr Orlov that David claimed that he bought the camera in 2008 from the owner of a Sacramento camera store shortly before they went out of business. If this is true, where was the camera between 1997 in San Francisco and 2008 in Sacramento and how did my name stay attached to it? It's almost as if whoever stole it was someone that knew me. I've checked with one of the owners of the store who is a friend of mine and they can find no evidence of a consignment sale of a 7x17 camera during their last year in business. What's also interesting is that I noticed David's feedback rating was 80%, terrible by eBay standards. Well, it turns out he only had 5 recent feedbacks and the one negative one was for this auction. Apparently the winning bidder never got the camera and instead it ended up with Mr Orlov in San Diego. Weird, right? I found David's phone number easily on the internet and have called him several times asking for his help in recovering my property, but clearly he lacks the balls necessary to deal with the situation and has not returned my calls. I am still considering filing a complaint with the Sacramento PD with the evidence I have of David Tribble selling my stolen property through the internet. But my first priority was getting my camera back.

The Call

So now it was time to talk to Mr Orlov. He was anxious to learn about the camera's history, so I suggest we set up a face-to-face conversation using FaceTime because I had a pretty interesting story to tell. I told him my story and laid out all the details about why this camera was undoubtedly mine. I told him how important it was to me and that I would pay him the for the camera so it wouldn't be a monetary loss for him. Please understand, by law I still own this camera and I am under no obligation to pay for its return. I offered to buy it because, well, I'm a nice guy. It was clear Anton was a bit flustered. I will give him the benefit of the doubt that he did not know the camera was stolen when he bought it, otherwise it would have been stupid for him to contact me. However, once he knows, he is obligated under the California Penal Code to surrender the stolen goods:
496. (a) Every person who buys or receives any property that has been stolen or that has been obtained in any manner constituting theft or extortion, knowing the property to be so stolen or obtained, or who conceals, sells, withholds, or aids in concealing, selling, or withholding any property from the owner, knowing the property to be so stolen or obtained, shall be punished by imprisonment in a county jail for not more than one year, or imprisonment pursuant to subdivision (h) of Section 1170.
(c) Any person who has been injured by a violation of subdivision (a) or (b) may bring an action for three times the amount of actual damages, if any, sustained by the plaintiff, costs of suit, and reasonable attorney's fees.
I told Anton to think about it for a couple of days, but I would get my camera back, one way or the other. I never dreamed a fellow photographer would do anything other than try to get a stolen and important camera back to its rightful owner. I guess I am naive. He came back with this:
I did give it some thought and I really don't think I am in a position to give up this camera whether or not it was indeed yours at some point - I am really looking forward to using it and creating wonderful images with it. I did have to go through a lot financially to get it (I am not wealthy and had to sell some sentimentally-important cameras to be able to afford this one) and I am looking forward to making it big (publishing books and teaching workshops) in the future and hopefully this camera can help me with that. I hope you understand.
Well, no, I don't understand. Legally, morally and ethically the camera belongs to me and Mr Orlov was breaking the law by withholding stolen property.  Then he says:
I spoke with the police already. It's not stolen property if bought at fair market price (more so it was bought at fair market price twice - once from the store and once from David).
Based on the law, this is downright laughable. No policeman would have made such a statement. And then this:
Well, I don't know what to say man... Best I can do is if you find me another Korona I'll trade this one for it, but otherwise I think you're being quite... I don't know... unreasonable is the best way I can put it.
Right, I am being unreasonable. Anyone who has had property taken from them certainly understands my position on this, as does the California Penal Code.

The Pursuit

Having the original police report in hand, I spent several days being bounced around the San Francisco Police Department trying to find someone who would latch on to the case and pass it on to the San Diego PD, because the case was now in their jurisdiction. No luck.

It was time to call for backup. First, good friend and fellow photographer Ed Ross (who happens to be an attorney) chased down the appropriate legal language and put together a letter to inform Mr Orlov if he did not turn over the camera, we would take him to court and sue for its return. Having that in my back pocket, I then contacted another good friend and photographer Tori Nelson, whose husband is a recently retired Lieutenant from the San Diego PD. He made a call and in a couple of days I had a phone call from a SDPD officer. I pointed him to the earlier version of this blog and gave him all the details of my case. In the mean time I had been going back and forth a bit with Mr Orlov and when I finally showed him part of the police report that clearly shows the details that identify the camera as mine, he decided maybe he should sell the camera to me after all. The next morning the officer called me back with bad news. A legal analyst had reviewed the case and recommended no action be taken. The officer apologized because he said he was a bit of a "camera guy" and he clearly thought I should get my camera back and he'd be glad to do it, but his hands were tied. So, with that I contacted Mr Orlov again and we agreed on a price for the camera, three film holders, lensboards and he threw in a silver nitrate tank he had had made for the format. We decided to set up a meeting the following week for Tori to take him the cash and retrieve my camera. I was not happy that I would be paying what amounts to ransom for my property, but at least an end was in sight.

Later that same day.... the officer called me back late that afternoon. "Don't give up yet, I'm trying figure out some way to make this work. You'll get a call from a detective in a day or two." Sweet! Indeed, a few days later I got a call from a SDPD detective who had reviewed the details and had some specific questions for me. One had to do with how much I had been reimbursed for the camera by the insurance company. Because it was less than $950, it fell into a misdemeanor category rather than a felony, which means lower priority when it comes to application of the PD's resources. He said he would look into it more and get back to me the next day, which he did. He took the case to the City attorney's office for review. Because of the time since the original crime and the dollar value of the camera, they were hesitant to recommend action. The detective said he was willing to pursue it, but if I really wanted to get the camera back and I was willing to pay for it, that would be my best bet. Especially since Mr Orlov had plans for a long cross-country road trip coming up soon.

So, in the end, that's what I did. Tori met with Mr Orlov, paid for the camera and shipped it safely back home. This was never about money for me from the start. It's about what is right. Sometimes a camera is just a camera, and sometimes it's much more than that. I plan to put the camera to good use in the future. And now that I am nearly recovered from hip surgery, I am ready to start working with a REALLY big camera again.

There are more details to the story, but some of them are speculative at this point (e.g. I believe I know who sold David Tribble my camera, but I have no proof at this time) and my goal with this blog was to present just the facts as they happened. And, I'm sure you'll agree, this post is long enough already.

The Arrival

Out for a Road Test
Crystal Basin, California, 2013 - The Journey Continues
Postscript: I want to thank Tori Nelson and Ed Ross for their help in this effort. It's great to have friends who have your back when you need help. I also want to thank Tori's husband and the SDPD for taking time to try and help me get my property back. I understand the PD has limited resources and there are much more important crimes they need to spend their time on than trying to recover stolen camera equipment. It's too bad Mr Orlov turned what could have been an easy exchange in a few days into a month-long endeavor involving so many people's time and effort. It did give me something to focus on while my body was healing from surgery. And now that I am nearly healed the Korona and I will once again spend some quality time together.


  1. Kerik - Good to see you doing well and reunited with your camera. It isn't the least unusual to be attached to an object with as broad and rich a back-story as this. Happy Shooting...


  2. Wow, SO glad you got your camera back after all this time, but what a nightmare. Hard to believe a fellow photographer would not be more accommodating, but anyway ... good luck!

  3. Not that it actually matters, but I just gave a look at Orlov's work, and the way he behaved with you doesn't surprise me much. Something quite dishonest in the overall impression. Anyway, it's probably irrelevant, but I wanted to send my regards and congratulate you for getting back that piece of art. Good luck with the coming pictures, many of them I hope.

  4. This blog reminds me of the value of having good Karma. While it may not have felt great that day in San Francisco or as you worked through the issues of recovering your camera - your good Karma triumphed and you were reunited with your Korona.

    I am very happy that you are back working with the camera that produced images that inspired me to pick up photography once again.

    Happy Shooting!

  5. Kerik,

    I linked to your blog from one of Bill Schwab's blogs. What a story. I have to say that Mr. Orlov's attitude stunned me. I doubt he will succeed in his work if he believes it's acceptable to comport himself that way. I'm not sure I'm a believer in Karma, but it seems Orlov passed up a perfect opportunity to have his made good, and chose to make it bad instead. Makes you wonder.

  6. Kerik,

    Believe it or not, I remember "Ice House Road in Fog" from when it won a contest in Darkroom Magazine in the early 1990's. You were kind enough to give me advice on the 7x17 format when I first started. I'm glad to see your camera came home to you.

    Thank you,


    1. Ben you have a good memory! Thank you for your kind words.