How to Authenticate an Artifact of Technology

Apple-1 Computer, 1976, $300,000 - $400,000 via RR Auction (September 2018).

On September 25, a rare relic of 20th century technology will go under the hammer at Boston-based auction house RR Auction: an Apple-1 computer, the first model ever produced by famed tech entrepreneurs Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. It is one of approximately 60-70 units still in existence today, and is expected to fetch between $300,000 and $400,000. 

But in an age where replicas and reproductions are everywhere, how do collectors ensure they’re looking at the real thing, especially when considering an object that’s so unique? New technology developed by a rising Swiss company may hold the key.

The History of the Apple-1 Computer

On Thursday, August 2, 2018, Apple became the first publicly traded American company with a valuation of more than $1 trillion. This massive success is in stark contrast to the company’s early days, which were spent building computers in the garage of the parents of co-founder Steve Jobs. Founded in 1976, Apple went public at $22 a share in 1980, reinventing the market for personal computers before faltering in the 1990s. On the brink of bankruptcy, Apple was then revitalized by Jobs and has grown exponentially over the past twenty years.

Detail of Apple-1 via RR Auction.

Created by Apple co-founders Jobs and Steve Wozniak in their garage, the Apple-1 computer was first conceived as a bare circuit board to be sold as a kit and completed by electronics hobbyists. In an attempt to expand the audience for the product, Jobs approached retailer Paul Terrell about selling Apple product in his store, The Byte Shop, located in Mt. View, California. Terrell agreed to purchase fifty Apple-1 computers only if they arrived fully assembled. The result was one of the first personal computers that did not require the end user to assemble the circuit board. Apple-1 computers were sold at The Byte Shop for $666.66 each.

apple 1

The Ricketts Apple-1 Personal Computer, Palo Alto, 1976. Sold for $365,000 via Christie’s (December 2014).

Between 1976 and 1977, approximately 200 of these computers were produced. Of those, fewer than 70 remain and only a small percentage of those are still in working condition. Given the scarcity and historical significance of the Apple-1, original models are known to sell for upwards of $300,000 at auction. In 2014, Bonhams sold a functional Apple-1 motherboard for $905,000 (with premium) to The Henry Ford.

Technology as Collectible

While Apple’s contemporary success can be attributed to a host of cutting-edge technological marvels, its obsolete products today stand as artifacts of some of the earliest advances in modern technology. Among the collector base for such relics: a community of historians and tech enthusiasts. Early products like the Apple-II and the Apple Lisa are particularly sought-after, as are vintage posters and garments printed with the corporate logo, but the original Apple-1 remains the holy grail for collectors.

Apple II computer, 1977. Sold for €5,410.55 via Auction Team Breker (May 2013).

Verifying Authenticity

So how do you verify the authenticity of such a rare and unique object? Documentation, expert opinions, and remarkable new technology are among the key criteria for illuminating an object’s past.

1. Tracing Provenance

The latest of these rare Apple-1 appearances at auction is accompanied by remarkable provenance. Bobby Livingston, Executive Vice President at RR Auction notes that the unit was first purchased at Terrell’s famous The Byte Shop by the original owner, then sold to the lot’s consignor for just $300. Realizing that it could be a piece of history one day, the consignor attempted to sell the Apple-1 directly to Steve Wozniak in 1982 for an asking price of $10,000 – an offer that, fortunately for him, went unanswered, said Livingston.

2. Expertise

The second piece of due diligence comes from vetting of the object by experts in the field. Computer historian and Apple-1 expert Corey Cohen, who was consulted by RR Auctions to verify the authenticity of the object, said that the present example “is one of the few known operational units that has never been modified or had circuit traces cut then repaired. [It] even includes the original keyboard used by the current owner back in the 1970s.” A recognized authority in the field, Cohen documented the authenticity of the Apple-1 at RR Auctions.

3. New Technology and “Digital DNA”

The last and perhaps most critical piece of due diligence comes from new advances in the digital world. Enter ARTMYN, a Swiss company that has unveiled new, sophisticated technology that’s reinventing how objects and works of art are experienced and sold online.

What exactly does
ARTMYN’s technology do? By taking a series of tens of thousands of photographs of an object, its scans allow a five-dimensional look at a work of art or antique, offering up-close, enhanced inspection of distinguishing details that otherwise go unseen. ARTMYN co-founder and CEO Alexandre Catsicas says a scan “allows you to ‘touch with your eyes’ and experience and interact with a digital twin of the Apple-1 as if the original was in your own hands.”

Not only does this allow for better viewing on any device, but “this process safely captures specific features – the ‘DNA’ of the piece – and then generates unique digital fingerprints that allow owners and interested buyers to monitor the condition of artworks and objects over time. Scanned artworks will now become unfalsifiable,” says Catsicas. He adds that the scanning process reveals the signature elements of an artwork or object, such as topography, properties of color and levels of reflection.

Old Technology Meets New

In the case of the Apple-1, the scan allows a 5D look at the iconic desktop, offering unprecedented views of distinguishing details on the top and bottom of the piece. “The Apple-1 was the first in the evolution of products from Apple that would forever change the world we live in,” said Livingston. “It’s fitting that the cutting-edge technology that is being used to scan, capture, and identify this historic computer is poised to revolutionize the auction business.”

Sources: The New York Times | Bloomberg