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April 25, 2005

Going, Going, Gone: Christie's Auctions Computer Artifacts

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While much of the industrialized world is struggling to recycle old computers, it's now clear that there is a profitable market developing around some computer artifacts and documents. A recent auction by Christie's New York established that there is not only a market for vintage computer artifacts, but that some items have significant value.

Christie's 'Origins of Cyberspace' auction attracted $714,000 from the recent sale that included items from as far back as the 1800s as well as from more recent decades.

"We were pleased with the sale because it was the first," said Bendetta Roux, a Christie's spokesperson Monday. "It was a successful sale because it established prices. Now there is some sort of price reference."

The auction was assembled from a collection developed by rare-book dealer Jeremy M. Norman, who had initially offered the entire collection of more than 200 items for $1.2 million. When the entire collection didn't sell as a single lot, the items were offered individually.

The item that drew the highest price of $78,000 was an 1842 manuscript and sketch with notes by Augusta Ada King. King, the daughter of the poet Lord George Gordon Byron, expressed the thoughts and writings of British inventor Charles Babbage in understandable language. Babbage's wooden and metal Analytical Engine is considered by many to be the first iteration of the modern computer. Many call Ada the first programmer, and indeed, the Ada software language was named after her.

Before the sale, auctioneers figured the item would fetch between $30,000 and $40,000, Roux said. It was bought by a U.S. private collector, Roux said.

Another offering attracting spirited bidding was the original business plan of the Electronic Control Company of Philadelphia. Originally estimated to be sold for between $50,000 and $70,000, the manuscript sold for $72,000, reportedly to Mitchell Kapor, the founder of Lotus Development Corp.

The Electronic Control Company is considered to have been the first electronic digital computer firm. It was founded by J. Presper Eckert and John Mauchly, who designed the first working electronic digital computer, the ENIAC, at the University of Pennsylvania. The Electronic Control Company was eventually absorbed by Univac after a series of mergers.

"We sold about one-half of the lot," Roux said. "Many of the smaller items didn't sell."

She said Christie's could operate another computing-oriented auction if another major collection becomes be available. In the meantime, she expects individual books and manuscripts relating to computing to be bundled into the auction house's general auctions. "The important thing is that prices (for computing artifacts) have now been established," she said.

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