It all started back in 1973. Steve Jobs, then just a seemingly normal 18-year-old looking for employment, filled out a paper job application. He had dropped out of Reed College in Oregon just six months into his studies due to lack of funds. But he filled out ‘English lit’ as his major on the application nonetheless.
Decades later, and years after Jobs’ death in 2011, that piece of paper made its way to the auction block at Boston-based RR Auction, where it sold for almost $175,000.
That same year, RR Auction also became one of the first auction houses to sell —an extremely rare—working Apple-1 computer.
For those who grew up at the same time as Apple matured as a company, it can be a dizzying thought—but original Apple products, as well as other obsolete pieces of technology, are now selling for sometimes startling amounts at auction. Add to the mix the ever-growing cult of personality surrounding Steve Jobs, which has only grown post-humously, and an entirely new genre of auction items has emerged—with RR Auction on the cutting edge.
The auction house has since sold vintage Apple items and memorabilia like additional Apple 1 computers, an early mouse and keyboard coding set, a first-generation iPhone, and even an Apple II manual signed by Jobs (a rarity—Jobs wasn’t in the habit of handing out signatures), among many other rare finds.
So how did RR Auction corner the market on tech auction items and Steve Jobs memorabilia?
“RR Auction’s reputation among the early pioneers of Silicon Valley and MIT has led to incredible consignments of some lost prototypes and even rare early video games,” says Bobby Livingston, Executive Vice President. “These types of treasures are leading the demand for even rarer early systems.”
“We’ve become a strong player in the science and tech market over the last 5 years since we sold our first Apple 1 in 2018,” Livingston, adds. “Being consistently in the media for record-breaking prices has brought in new deep-pocketed collectors, like Jim Irsay.”
For his part, Jim Irsay, owner of the Indianapolis Colts, ended up placing the winning bid for the signed Apple II manual.
“When we think of the greatest, most innovative minds of the past two centuries, Steve Jobs must certainly be included among them,” Irsay said in a statement. “Jobs was a truly transformative figure who changed the way in which human beings think, do business, and interact on a daily basis.”
Since early sales of Apple 1 computer models, auction houses have also seen increasing demand for Steve Jobs memorabilia, like signed items, handwritten letters, and even clothing worn by the tech mogul. Even a Jobs business card from his early days at Apple sold for over $6,000 at a recent auction.
“Most of our Science and Tech collectors are involved in the tech industry or we’re inspired by the tech revolution. With that in mind, the most unique aspect for us is, ‘Does the computer still work?’ ‘Can you get it to work?’ At which point, we find an expert like Corey Cohen for that type of computer and have them fire it up.”
“It’s getting these early prototypes out of the hands of people that made them or were given them and into the hands of someone that’s going to curate them and take care of them for the next generation,” says Livingston.
Livingston said that for people like him and for some of the site’s buyers, many of whom witnessed the computing revolution earlier in their lives, mementos of the life-changing time period hold a special, iconic status.
“Many of our clients live in the Bay Area. They’ve become extremely wealthy because of their associations with computers and internet technology,” Livingston tells SF Gate. “A Steve Jobs business card for thousands makes total sense to our clients. It’s a serious collectible.”
It’s not just hobbyists and collectors who are scooping up vintage technology pieces. Institutions like the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, CA are getting in on the action, too.
“The Apple-1 is so iconic of that era, of the garage era of Silicon Valley, that I think there is almost no other object that really encapsulates what it does culturally and technologically,” says Dag Spicer, senior curator for the Computer History Museum, which has an Apple-1 in its collection. It’s one of their most popular pieces, Spicer tells NPR.
And what should buyers do with these rare pieces of tech history, such as the Apple-1, if they’re not a museum?
“From a layout perspective, it is considered a piece of art,” Corey Cohen, an Apple-1 expert, tells NPR. “Many people hang these on the wall.”
So, the question is: should people start hoarding their tech-related items, in case they’re valuable one day?
Not all vintage tech will be right for auction. In many cases, for the piece to be valuable, it should be in working condition—or, as was the case of the iPhone 1, unopened. But novelty is also a huge factor: if its unique, or rare, that helps. As does the Midas touch of one of the tech greats: if Jobs, Wozniak, Bill Gates, or other titans of Silicon Valley owned it or signed it, it’s worth getting appraised. But an original Apple-1 computer will always sell.
“If you’ve got one in the garage and you see us in the media, please call us,” says Livingston.
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