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Saturday, May 25, 2013

How Vintage Apple Computers Used to Sell

Original Apple-1 computers are now sold at professional auctions and can command hundreds of thousands of dollars, as I wrote about in an article published Thursday on the Web and in Friday's paper.

But the old computers have been sold more informally for years, at far more modest prices. The story behind the 1997 sale of an Apple-1, which now resides at the Computer History Museum, shows how the market used to work, when the transactions were simpler but more personal.

The buyer was a young New York entrepreneur “with a nerd's love of technology,” in his words. The seller was a single mother at the time, living in Oregon, who used the proceeds to “pay off debts and keep me and my kids afloat,” she recalled.

Ian Lynch Smith bought the Apple-1, also commonly known as the Apple I, for $10,000. He had been writing games for Apple's Macintosh computer since shortly after he graduated from Vassar College. His company in Brooklyn, Freeverse, had made some progress, and he stretched a bit to make the purchase. Mr. Lynch, now 42, comes from family of antique dealers, and his mother, Patricia, encouraged him, saying the scarce machine (an estimated 175 to 200 Apple-1's were produced) would prove to be a good investment in the long run.

Mr. Smith showed off his Apple-1 at the Freeverse booth at the Macworld conference in New York in 1998. Later, he loaned it indefinitely to the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif. “It's better cared for, and serves a real educational mission,” he said.

The seller, Janet Keim, bought the Apple-1 at a fund-raising auction for KMUN, a public radio station in Astoria, Ore. Ms. Keim said she was later told that the machine was donated for the auction by a member of the Homebrew Computer Club, where Apple's founders, Steven P. Jobs and Stephen G. Wozniak, first showed off the Apple-1.

In a telephone interview on Thursday, Ms. Keim said she did not recall the name of the former Homebrew member, who long ago moved away.

A friend posted a picture and short description of the Apple-1 on a Web site. And Ms. Keim did some research and found out if she wanted to sell the machine, it would be far more valuable if it was authenticated as an original Apple-1.

So Ms.Keim put the computer in her car, and drove down to San Francisco, where The Computer Museum of Boston, had an office, and was making a permanent move to Silicon Valley (and renamed The Computer History Museum). Dag Spicer, a computer historian, did the authentication, and acted as a kind of go-between in the sale from Ms. Keim to Mr. Smith.

One thing Ms. Keim apparently declined to mention at the time was how much she paid for the Apple-1 a year earlier, in 1996, at a radio fund-raiser. She paid $90, she said on Thursday.

Told of the price in an e-mail, Mr. Spicer replied, “I didn't know about the $90 - holy cow!”

Then again, Mr. Spicer noted, “Ian got a great deal too in light of today's prices.”

At the public-radio auction in 1996, a friend told Ms. Keim that the Apple-1 might be valuable. She knew nothing about computers, or the Apple history, she said. Ms. Keim said she was working three part-time jobs at the time, was in debt and had to borrow money to raise the $90 for the purchase.

Ms. Keim's laughs when discussing today's sky-high prices for Apple-1's. She betrays no second thoughts about having sold it years ago, a deal that gave her a financial lifeline at the time.

“It was good for me and good for the machine,” said Ms. Keim, who is an operator of a napkin-making machine in a Georgia-Pacific plant.

“That computer went to someone who really understood what it meant and could really appreciate it,” she said

Mr. Smith's company, Freeverse, which made popular games for the iPhone and iPad, was sold to a competitor, Ngmoco, in 2010. Mr. Smith said he recently started a new venture, Secondverse. He will not disclose its product plans, other than to say it will make software that runs on Apple's iOS operating system for iPhones and iPads.

Given today's prices, is Mr. Smith's Apple-1 for sale? He certainly has no current plan to put it on the market. In an e-mail, Mr. Smith said he has always thought of the vintage machine “more like a rainy day investment that I enjoy owning, so it's not really for sale.”

“Maybe,” he added, “my kids can donate it to the museum and claim a tax break on any estate taxes at some point in the future.”