A vintage Apple-1 personal computer that was sold 38 years ago to a buyer out of Steve Jobs’ garage went for US$365,000 at Christie’s in New York City, thousands under the auction house’s lowest estimate.
The gavel price was just 40 percent that paid in October by The Henry Ford, a museum in Michigan, which wrote a check for US$905,000 for a different machine. Previously, Christie’s had forecast today’s Apple-1 would sell for between US$400,000 and US$600,000.
“It was a little disappointing,” admitted Bob Luther, about the selling price of his Apple-1. “But it was time for me to move on, and it’s good that it’s sold. Owning it has been an incredible experience. And I can’t complain. I’m a big Apple fan and I’m not very diversified in my 401(k) because a very high percentage of it is in Apple stock. And [that Apple stock] has been very good to me.”
At the same auction, a collection of documents owned by Ron Wayne, the third – and little-known – co-founder of Apple, sold for US$25,000, also below its Christie’s estimate. Wayne, now 80, was offered a 10 percent share in the new company in 1976, but days after joining the partnership he backed out. Wayne received US$800 for his shares.
Both the Apple-1 and Wayne’s collection were purchased through telephone bids at the auction, which Luther attended. “So I wasn’t able to go up to them and congratulate them on the purchase,” he said.
Luther’s Apple-1 was distinctive not only because of its rarity – there are only about 60 known to exist – but because of its provenance. Included with the computer, which in reality was little more than a circuit board, was a cancelled July 1976 check for US$600 made out to Apple Computer by the original owner, Charles Ricketts.
According to Luther, Ricketts’ Apple-1 was the only documented direct-to-a-customer sale that Apple made. Most of the systems that co-founder Steve Wozniak designed – and with the help of Steve Jobs and others, hand-built – were sold to the iconic Byte Shop, an early computer store in California.
Luther purchased the Apple-1 at a sheriff’s sale in 2004 for US$7,600, so even though his antique went for less than Christie’s anticipated, he still realised a profit in excess of 3,800 percent. Subtracting Christie’s ‘premium’ – the auction term for a commission – Luther received approximately US$300,000 for the Apple-1.
Luther also wrote a book, The First Apple, that recounted the years he spent investigating the history of the first-ever, already-assembled personal computer he acquired. In the book, Luther described not only the Apple-1, but the people he met during his travels, including an Royal Air Force (RAF) officer who let others use his name in a 1999 sale of the computer, and a dumpster-diving California songwriter who founded a used computer store after selling software manuals at flea markets.
Along the way, Luther also met and became friends with Wayne, who has been largely forgotten in the history of Apple’s creation.
Wayne’s collection included original working proofs of the Apple-1 manual, his original company logo – perhaps the oldest copy in existence – and design renderings of a proposed Apple II case. The case, while never put into production, foreshadowed the eventual look of not only the Apple II and IIe, but also scores of other early computers, including the Atari 400 and Commodore PET.
Minus Christie’s premium, Wayne received US$20,000 for his archive of documents.
“His was the harder to predict, because there were really no comparables,” said Luther of the Wayne’s collection estimate by Christie’s.
When asked if he had plans for the money from today’s sale, Luther first pointed out that he would have to pay taxes on the gains. But he also has his eye on a 1964 Chevrolet Corvette.
“I’m a vintage car enthusiast, and my 13-year-old son and I have been negotiating with an 87-year-old man to buy the Corvette,” said Luther. “It’s a really cool original car, we love originality, and we love the stories associated with things.”
Luther wasn’t unaware of the similarities between his attraction to original, versus restored, automobiles and his fascination with the Apple-1. Nor was he blind to the vast changes that Apple has gone through in the nearly four decades since its founding, as represented by differences between his Apple-1 and what Apple now sells.
“Yesterday I took a jog through Central Park, and when I came out of the park, I saw the Apple Store [on 5th Avenue], the large glass cube,” Luther said. “It was 8:00 am, and there was an employee at the door. At first I thought he was the employee who let other employees in, but then I remembered that the store was open 24 hours.
“A woman with a child in a stroller had stopped to talk with the Apple employee, and I overheard her ask ‘Who are all those people?’ and she pointed to a mass of people at the side, just outside the store,” Luther continued.
“The employee said, ‘That’s the iPhone 6 line.’”