Inoperable Apple 1 may fetch $126K at Christie's auction

Aged computer owned by former Apple employee

Christie's today said it will auction off an Apple 1 computer from the firm's first batch, and predicted the machine will sell for as much as $126,000 when it hits the block in October.

The Apple-1 -- which consisted of a circuit board hand-built by Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak -- first went on sale in July 1976 for $666.66. About 200 units were produced. According to Christie's, there are about 50 surviving Apple-1 computers.

"This is the computer that started Apple, now recognized as the most valuable company in the world," said James Hyslop, a Christie's scientific specialist, in a statement Tuesday. "Its significance in making computer technology accessible for all cannot be undervalued."

Perhaps.

But the projected sales price range -- of 50,000 to 80,000 pounds, or $79,000 to $126,000 -- is far below the selling price of another Apple 1, which went for $374,000 in June at rival auction house Sotheby's.

Sotheby's Apple 1, however, was one of only six in working condition. The Christie's computer is missing some of its DRAM (dynamic random-access memory), according to Mike Willegal, an engineer with a major technology company who has identified and indexed 43 Apple-1 computers. "It's not in working condition," said Willegal in an interview.

Unlike later personal computers, including the 1977 Apple II, the Apple-1 was sold as a fully-assembled circuit board, but minus a case, power supply, keyboard or monitor. Buyers had to provide those components, resulting in some interesting custom computers. The one Christie's will sell in London on Oct. 9 features a sleek-looking plastic case reminiscent of the follow-up Apple II.

That case did not come from Apple, said Willegal, who queried several of his Apple 1 contacts, including Wozniak, in an attempt to identify its origin.

Christie's said the Apple 1 was being sold by the estate of Joe Copson, a former Apple employee. Willegal confirmed that Copson once worked at Apple -- although he wasn't an early employee -- as well as at Atari, where both Wozniak and former CEO Steve Jobs also worked before starting Apple. "Maybe [Copson] knew Jobs and Wozniak there," Willegal said.

The computer was part of the first run of circuit boards crafted by Wozniak, but Christie's contention that it has the serial number 22 is misleading. "The Byte Shop, which sold several Apple 1 computers, would write a number on the back of the board with a Sharpie, but Wozniak never put serial numbers on them," said Willegal.

A former Apple employee's Apple 1 computer will be auctioned by Christie's in October. Because the computer is missing some DRAM it is not operational. (Image: Christie's Images Ltd.)

He also noted that the Copson Apple 1 had been put up for sale on eBay last December at an opening bid price of $179,000, but failed to sell.

"I think it will sell in [Christie's] price range," Willegal said when asked about the auctioneer's projection.

It's clear that the Apple 1 sale earlier this summer, as well as another in November 2010 that went for $213,000 in a Christie's auction, have spurred people to dust off their old Apple 1 systems.

"They've been changing hands a lot recently due to Christie's auction [in 2010] that went over $200,000," said Willegal. "People are saying, 'I've got this thing, I'm not interested in it anymore, I want to move it.' But how many well-heeled people are really out there that want these things? I do know a lot who want these for $20,000."

Willegal also wondered whether the high prices garnered by some Apple 1 computers may prod counterfeiters to product a fake that could pass muster.

"There's a chance in the future that someone would build a reproduction [able to fool experts]," Willegal said. He knows of one hobbyist who is recreating an Apple 1, going so far as to remove identifying numbers from chips, then replacing them with numbers appropriate to an Apple 1. "But he's doing it just for fun, he's just trying to reproduce an old computer," said Willegal.

The money being spent on Apple 1s hasn't trickled down to equally-worth antiques or shaken even older personal computers from attics, Willegal said.

"I've been looking for two versions of the Scelbi (SCientific ELectronic BIological) for a couple of years now, but you never see them for sale."

The Scelbi, which came in both kit and assembled motherboard forms, predated the Apple 1. The first advertisement for the computer, created by the Milford, Conn.-based Scelbi Computer Consulting, ran in 1974 in the still-published QST amateur radio magazine.

Willegal said he knows of just three surviving Scelbi computers.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed. His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

See more by Gregg Keizer on Computerworld.com.

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