The Dizzying Rise (And Fall?) Of Apple 1 Prices | Cult of Mac

The Dizzying Rise (And Fall?) Of Apple 1 Prices

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Price info from auction houses; view sources here.

The very first computer Apple ever made has all the hallmarks of a valuable collectible: scarcity, novelty and impracticality.

Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak cobbled together about 200 of them in a Los Altos garage in the late 70s. (That garage is now slated to become an historical destination.) The Apple 1 cost $666.66 and the pioneers of home computing who bought it had to add their own case, keyboard, video display and power supply to actually use it.

Those machines seemed to be largely forgotten on the larger resale market until 2009, when the economic squeeze made collectors realize those humble-looking relics could morph into serious cash.

The auction escalation for these machines began slowly, with a tech journalist telling the seller of the first one of the bunch to crop up on eBay that “I don’t think your computer is valuable enough to spark much general media interest,” but that a small following of avid collectors would be enough to start a “bidding war.”

Not exactly: that first machine earned its owner $18,000, about $2,000 over the top sum the journalist thought it might fetch. Not bad, but not enough to pay off your mortgage, like the ones selling for around $300,000 just a few years later.

Very few of these iconic homespun machines work – those that can still crunch the cassette interface are worth a lot more, so are those that come with the collateral, including the original box and typed letters on binder paper from a young man who signed himself Steven Jobs. (Watch Wendell Sander, Apple employee no. 16, fire up his Apple 1 for a memory dump using an iPod in our video.)

Since that first auction, media interest has soared. And so have the prices. Once the large auction houses got involved, the prices levitated to a record $671,000 for a working Apple 1 this year.

“I do feel that some of the recent auction prices attained for the Apple 1 are absurd,” Dag Spicer, senior curator of the Computer History Museum told Cult of Mac. The Mountain View, California home to calculating curios holds over 100,000 items, most of them donated, including two Apple 1s. “The death of Steve Jobs and Apple’s ascendancy as the world’s most valuable company has something to do with it.”

There are a few signs that the trend won’t keep climbing. The New York Times reported that an Apple 1 on the auction block in London failed to meet its $75,000 reserve price and another one sold for $375,000 instead of the $500,000 Christie’s expected. The most recent auction in Germany closed without a single bid — though the Apple 1 fetched about $330,000 after the last gavel sounded.

The friendly atmosphere – and the amateur collector-friendly prices – stopped when the auction houses realized that there was plenty of new money to be had with old circuits.

“Auction houses exist to maximize profit for the seller (and thus themselves as they get a hefty commission),” Spicer said. “The effect this has is (in my opinion) to inflate the monetary value of objects.  Auction houses live on what early 20th-century circus barkers called ‘ballyhoo’ — they whip up emotions with arresting curatorial text and glossy catalogs in order to create a sense of magic and uniqueness about an object.  And, of course, the auction process itself, in which passionate, well-heeled buyers compete against each other, itself serves to raise prices.”

Still, if you want to dig into garage and estate sales seeking a mother lode in a motherboard, you might want to keep Mike Willegal’s site bookmarked. Willegal tends an online registry that has positively ID’d 48 Apple 1s and warns that reproductions are getting harder to tell from the originals. Willegal says owners may be in good faith but cautions: “If you are in the market for an original Apple 1, be extremely careful about what you are investing in.”

And it pays to watch prices, Computer History Museum’s Spicer says: “I have seen an Apple 1 selling for $75K in the last year… so to that buyer who spent 500,000 Euro on one…well, ooops!  Lesson: Do your homework!”