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Vintage Apple 1 computer sells for $374,500 at auction

By Patrick May, San Jose Mercury News –

SAN JOSE, Calif. — It took only one minute and fifty-two seconds Friday morning for a bit of Apple history to be written.

Make that $374,500 worth of history.

With the whack of his little ivory gavel, Sotheby’s veteran auctioneer Selby Kiffer sold a vintage Apple 1 computer to an unidentified bidder, blowing away the previous record price of $212,000 that an Italian collector coughed up two years ago.

“My God,” said Sellam Ismail, a Livermore, Calif., software programmer and computer aficionado who maintains an index of the approximately 50 surviving Apple 1s. He could barely stop laughing when he heard the price. “This is almost double what the guy in Italy paid — and his came with a letter signed by Steve Jobs!

“I think we’ll now see a lot of guys out there willing to part with their beloved Apple 1s, saying to themselves, ‘Holy smoke … I can retire now.’ ”

Sotheby’s had estimated the iconic Apple 1 — which is in working condition and comes with a manual, keyboard and other accessories—could fetch as much as $180,000. Of the 200 hand-built machines that sold originally for $666.66 each, only a handful of the 50 survivors are believed to be in working order.

Given its stellar status in computer history, the Apple 1 has become a true collector’s item around the world. And Friday’s sales price was probably bolstered by the death last year of co-founder Steve Jobs as well as Apple’s spectacular popularity from its culture-shifting product line.

Within seconds of announcing Lot 57, Kiffer was already fielding offers of more than $200,000 from bidders at the New York auction house as well as others calling in by phone. “Two-hundred and fifty thousand,” Kiffer said, wearing a smart white suit and colorful tie for the in-house and online audiences. In a matter of seconds, he was at $280,000, then $300,000, then $310,000 from a telephone bidder.

Then bam! The so-called “hammer price” was locked in for posterity. By the time Kiffer had moved on to Lot 58, which featured some lovely Japanese prints, the taxes and a buyer’s premium to Sotheby’s had been added in, with the final damage of $374,500 to the mysterious Apple 1 fan.

“That’s awesome,” said early Apple employee and computer collector Dick Huston when told the news. “I sold a non-working Apple 1 on eBay last week for $75,600, so I’m thinking they went a little crazy in New York this morning. This sale takes us across a boundary line to where you have to start looking at these things as art pieces, like Monets.”

Huston, a retired software engineer who lives in California’s Santa Cruz mountains and was Apple employee No. 25, compared the early computers to the first light bulbs or telephones as collectibles. “These things have real historical significance, and I’m delighted because 100 years from now they’ll still be around and appreciated as important pieces of history, of which I’m proud to have been a part.”

Just before the Apple 1 sale, Kiffer sold a four-page memo on game design written by Jobs when he worked for Atari in 1974. Expected to attract bids of up to $15,000, the lot went for $27,500. But it was the Apple 1 that clearly stole the show, thanks to two aggressive and anonymous bidders who dominated the action.

“This was an unusual event,” Kiffer said after the auction. “The bidding took off quickly between a couple of people. The winning bidder was placing bids almost before the competitor had finished theirs.”

Kiffer said the computer’s historical import, along with the Apple imprimatur, created a lot of heat around the auction.

“This really struck a chord with people, and we had interest from around the world,” he said. “The fact that it’s in working order, with the monitor and keyboard included, let people see what it really would have looked like back in 1976. And that made it very desirable.

“I think it’s possible we’ll see more of these remaining Apple 1s now come out of the woodwork.”

———

BY THE NUMBERS:

—$374,500: What the Apple 1 sold for

—$310,000: The “hammer price” before adding fees and taxes

—200: Number of Apple 1s created

—50: Number of Apple 1s believed to survive

—6: Number of surviving Apple 1s believed to be working

SOURCE: Sotheby’s and Mercury News reporting

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