On Feb. 23, Christies held an auction of rare documents and artifacts related to the growth of technology called “The Origins of Cyberspace: A Library on the History of Computing, Networking & Telecommunications,” bringing in more than $700,000.
Though it fell disappointingly short of the estimated $1.2 million haul, the auction—the first of its kind—is a signal that theres a growing interest in collecting technology, just as one might collect art.
But are the independent collectors driving up the cost of these rare pieces to unreasonable prices?
And is the land grab for vintage hardware, software and documentation hindering the work of computer historians?
“The Christies auction definitely did open up computer collecting to a new marketplace, sort of a higher-end type of collector, people who are a lot more wealthy and dont necessarily collect for the appreciation of the technology itself,” said Sellam Ismail, the Software Collections Manager for the Computer History Museum.
“Most of the collectors, like myself, grew up on computers or were exposed to computers at a young age. We have more of an attachment to the technology. With the Christies auction, what kind of developed was more of a traditional collectors market.”
In fact, the Computer History Museum was unable to purchase some of the artifacts available at the auction because of budget reasons.
However, Ismail noted that a benefactor did acquire some of the items at auction and then donated them to the museum.
Popularized in the 80s and 90s, vintage computer collections can blossom on a small scale for individuals by haunting yard sales or local thrift stores.
On a large scale, museums often receive artifacts when corporations retire old technology, or when retired computer engineers donate their pieces of history.
And with many Web and print resources flourishing—Evan Koblentzs Computer Collector Newsletter is one, as is Michael Nadeaus book “Collectible Microcomputers”—anyone with that first computer from high school still sitting in the garage can get in on collecting.
“Without a doubt, the number of collectors competing for more scarce but desirable items such as Altairs and IMSAIs is driving up their cost,” said Erik Klein via e-mail.
Klein runs the site Vintage-computer.com, which hosts the popular Vintage Computer Forum.
“More common items, however, like Apple ][, Atari or Commodore systems, seem to be holding steady price-wise.”
Still, Klein is optimistic about the relationship between collectors and museums.
“I think there is more of a synergy then a competition in most areas.”
Klein adds, “Someone with a piece of the SAGE or ENIAC [two early computers], for example, has it because they recognize its significance. They arent likely to sell it to a collector for a few bucks when a museum is a more worthy recipient.”
Ismail is also confident in the relationship between the collector and the museum, and not just because of their shared passion for technology.
“The museums are able to handle really large artifacts like mainframe computers, because they have the space, they have the budget, they have the facilities. The individual collector is going to be looking to add hardware to their computer to get it working. Theyre more interested in playing with things they have, as opposed to being a miniature museum, and collecting stuff just to archive.”
Ismail said he is confident that true technology aficionados will triumph, if for no other reason than vanity, and he predicts a continued stream of donations rather than bidding wars.
“In the long term, museums are going to win because nerds want recognition. They want their name to be remembered.”