Think Different: The Cultural and Historical Value of Apple is on the Rise

Topps. Marvel. Panini. DC. Nike. Nintendo. All companies that have had an enormous impact on fractional markets. But while the history and the significance of the companies themselves play a role in that impact, most of it is derived from the underlying products and their associated stories. Not so in the case of Forrest Gump’s favorite fruit company, Apple Computer.

Artifacts of the rich history of not just Apple but also importantly of co-founder, Steve Jobs, have cemented themselves as valued pieces not only in fractional markets but in the broader collectibles space. The products themselves matter, but they weren’t hatched as collectible items. Rather, they’re treasured remembrances of the company’s pivotal innovations – monuments of the journey to where we sit today (namely, on the couch, looking at our phones).

Whether it’s the product that started the journey, the Apple-1, the product that brought the focus to our pocket, the iPod, or the product that put an all-capable computer in the palm of our hand, the iPhone, the history of Apple is now a valuable commodity. As for Jobs, who has achieved an almost mythological status a decade after his passing, he is unquestionably the most highly sought-after corporate executive in the collectibles world.

With RR Auction’s Apple and Steve Jobs auction wrapping up last week and the signed Macintosh Plus trading on Rally Friday, it’s a good time to put the size and scope of the Apple asset universe and its rise in context.

Steve Jobs, Cultural Icon: Two Biopics, Few Autographs, Big Money

Starting with Jobs, so rare are his signatures and memorabilia, that it took RR Auction, in business for 30 years, until 2012 to offer its very first Jobs item & signature. It was the signed reverse of a business card (not a Jobs business card), reluctantly signed at a Motorola Software Engineering Symposium in 1989. It sold for $5,794.

Now, more Jobs signatures have surfaced along the way, but there is still an extreme relative dearth; Jobs was notorious for rarely providing autographs (more on that later), and this is confirmed by the scarcity of examples that have come up for sale, particularly relative to those of his co-founder Steve Wozniak, whose signature is available in great abundance (a fun and perhaps telling illustration of differences between the two men).

The aforementioned business card is far and away the least expensive Jobs-signed item that RR Auction has ever sold. Every single sale since has been five figures, and any that are remotely interesting are now routinely fetching six figures. Take for example a hand-written job application from his time at Reed college – it sold in March of 2018 with RR Auction for $174,557. That same application returned to the auction block earlier this year, three years later, selling for 162,000 GBP, or $222k at the time. That’s a 26% increase, or 8% annualized. For what it’s worth, AAPL stock effectively tripled over the same time period.

For a more tantalizing example of strong returns, consider Jobs-signed copies of the premier edition of MacWorld (unsigned copies are rare in their own right). One such copy sold for $47,775 in December of 2018 – accompanied by photo and video evidence of Jobs reluctantly signing at the grand opening of the Fifth Avenue Apple Store in New York. Another example surfaced at the auction closing last week. This time, the consignor was a former product marketing manager for QuickTime technology at Apple. He managed to get the magazine signed alongside his plaque awarded for working five years at Apple (Jobs did sign these) – he made the request of Jobs’s assistant, who replied, “No way, he doesn’t like to sign anything” (further evidence of his reticence), but it got done nonetheless. That copy, also eventually signed by Woz, just sold for $201,021. Understanding we’re comparing two different copies, that’s still a 321% improvement in a little over 2.5 years. In this case, the Jobs memento outperforms AAPL stock, which returned 253% over the same period.

Image: RR Auction

Among the other Jobs autos that sold last week at RR Auction:

  • A typed letter, hand-signed (!), which responds to a written autograph request with the following: “I’m honored that you’d write, but I’m afraid I don’t sign autographs.” The price? $479,939.
  • An inscribed and signed Apple II manual. “Your generation is the first to grow up with computers. Go change the world!” Sold for $787,484, reportedly to Indianapolis Colts owner, Jim Irsay. This introduces my new (and somewhat jocular) fractional investing parameter: would Jim Irsay buy this, and for how much?
  • Signed NeXTSTEP software. Sold for $210,235.
  • Custom-built Macintosh 128k logic board display, also signed by Jeff Raskin. Sold for $132,049.

The lowest priced Jobs-signed item was a signed program from an American Academy of Achievement award ceremony, at which Jobs spoke. Bearing little connection to Apple or Jobs’s achievements, that sold for $22,878.

Image: RR Auction. The $787k manual, which passes the "would Jim Irsay buy this?" test.

The Jobs-signed lots present a good opportunity to discuss the one Jobs-signed item trading fractionally: a Macintosh Plus on Rally signed not only by Jobs, but also signed before him by nine key members of the Macintosh team for a photo shoot. While the Macintosh Plus itself isn’t one of the crowning products of Apple’s storied history, it was the longest-produced Macintosh ever until the Second Generation Mac Pro (2013-2018). Not to mention, the Mac team was near-and-dear to Jobs as somewhat of a pirate unit under his leadership. He felt these were A-players, and he was desperate to prove the team’s superiority to other Apple projects in a time of heightening tension between Jobs and the rest of company leadership.  Of course, Jobs’s first tenure at Apple ended not too long after the Macintosh’s release.

The signed Macintosh Plus sold with RR Auction for $28,750 in September of 2018. Rally’s asset chart reflects a July 2020 eBay sale for $42,000, though their purchase price in the offering circular is listed as $35,000. The computer was offered by Rally in October of 2020 for an IPO market cap of $50,000. Since, it has traded up to $110,000. Though the 120% return is certainly strong, given the significance of the team and the Macintosh line, one can make their own assertions about how this Jobs-signed asset fits among the recently sold items listed above.

Photo: Rally

Two more quick notes on Jobs before we move on. First, the market for his business cards has to stand as the strongest in existence. RR has sold four Jobs Apple business cards to date, none of which have been signed or slabbed. The most recent sale, last week, was for $12,905. The previous three sales had hovered in the $5-6k range. The next highest business card sale is $7,366 for a Bill Gates Microsoft card, which is both signed and slabbed by PSA. So iconic is the Jobs Apple business card that Brooklyn art collective, MSCHF, produced replicas in their “Boosted Packs”, which included other identity-based cards like Facebook and Theranos employee badges or Enron business cards.

Finally, on a pretty foul note, a pair of Birkenstocks worn by Jobs in the 1980s sold for $2,750 with Heritage Auctions in 2016. Can we all agree that no matter the man who wore them, worn Birkenstocks should not be part of this alternative asset wave? That being said, the pair garnered an offer of $5,000 in May of 2020. I hate to even go there, but I feel it’s my duty, so here we go: had the owner sold, it would’ve represented a return of 82%. I’m relieved to report that an investment in AAPL stock over the same period would’ve netted a return of 240%. Still, as has often been the case, both AAPL and Jobs (or rather his sandals in this case), beat the S&P 500, which returned 60%.

The chart I never wanted to make...but had to.

The Apple-1: Odyssey of an OG

Moving from Jobs to some of the company’s most important creations, the product with the most robust track record and data as a collectible item is the OG, the Apple-1. The brainchild of Wozniak, it’s believed that approximately 200 Apple-1s were produced, 50 of which were in a first batch, with the rest (bearing the logo of the printed circuit board manufacturer, NTI) following later. 50 units were also to be sold to Byte Shop in Mountain View, CA, and many of these examples bear handwritten inventory numbers.

According to Apple 1 Registry (the holy grail of Apple 1 information and data), of the 200, there are 79 known to exist – 59 verified and 20 almost verified – with an additional 10 that either might exist or are potentially double listed, and 4 that maybe no longer exist. Of the 79, 40 are from the first batch, 37 are from the second batch, and 2 are unknown. 19 examples are now in museums, reducing the available supply. How did so many of the 50 first batch examples survive and so few of the second batch? It’s suspected that many of those that were either unsold or traded in for an Apple II came from the second batch and were ultimately destroyed.  

Though the general trend is upwards, it’s very difficult to compare auction sales of Apple 1s. The condition can differ significantly, as can the peripherals with which the computer is sold, and other items like manuals or letters are often included as well. On the point of condition, buyer tastes can vary: is it better to have a computer in better condition but with more replaced parts, or in worse condition but a greater proportion of original parts? There is an occasional rating applied to items that come up for auction – granted by Apple-1 expert, Corey Cohen. For example, he rated Rally’s example an 8.0/10 when it came up for auction with RR, noting that it’s fully operational and was run without fault for eight hours.

The high watermark for an Apple-1 sale is $905,000 back in 2014 at Bonham’s. This example, from the first batch and bought by the Henry Ford museum, was noted by Cohen to be in significantly better condition than any other that had come up for public sale in the previous four years.  Rally’s example, from the second batch, sold for just under $737k with RR in December of 2020. The example was signed by Wozniak and included the original box (extremely rare), the original Apple Cassette Interface, the original manual, and other vintage accessories. It was offered earlier this year for $825,000 and has yet to begin trading.

As mentioned, the extreme uniqueness of each example makes it difficult to draw much from the auction sales. And with more examples finding longer term homes each year, the number of auction sales isn’t that large to begin with. The Apple-1 registry just counts 34 known auction sales, and repeat sales are even more limited. Fortunately, one such repeat sale happened just last week. #12 in the registry, last sold at the 2002 VCF auction for $14,000, is reported by the registry site to have sold for $464,876 with RR Auction last week. It is said that the 2002 $14,000 sale was actually a somewhat disappointing step back; there was reportedly a sale for $50,000 near the height of the dot-com bubble in 1999. Now, the listing from last week – a 7.0 example from the second batch according to Cohen - is no longer on the RR Auction website, so take the result with a grain of salt in case unverified. Still, it would be a 32x or a 20% annual return over 19 years.

Source: Apple-1 Registry

Learnings for the New "OGs": iWonder if There are Any

Is there anything we can glean from the trajectory of the Apple-1 for those newer wave assets that mark different, later, but still foundational pieces of Apple’s history? I'm referring of course to the sealed first generation iPod on Rally and the sealed first generation iPhone on Otis. Comps for those assets are almost non-existent. Examples pop up on eBay from time to time – Rally’s app notes a 2014 sale for $20,000 and their purchase for $21,995. As for the iPhone, Otis refers to an $8.6k sale for the earliest variation (it has 12 app icons on the front of the box – the Otis copy is of this production) in May of 2021 and an $11k sale for a later, 13 icon variation in February of 2021.

Okay, let’s back up for a second. The Apple-1 retailed in 1976 for $666.66 (weird flex by Wozniak). If, as is reported, an example sold for $50,000 in 1999, 23 years later, that would be 75x the original retail price. If we wanted to go with the tamer 2002 sale of $14,000, that would be 21x 26 years after the product’s debut. Today, using an average of the three sales over the last two years as just an example – keeping in mind auction sales will vary considerably – we sit at 830x the original retail price 45 years after its debut. Interestingly, if you adjust for the relative scarcity, you can get to a not dissimilar multiple for sales of Nike's Moonshoes relative to the retail price of the Waffle Trainer from that time period (mid 70s release).

Now, it’s considerably earlier days for both the iPod and iPhone. The iPod debuted in 2001 at a retail price of $399. When one sold for $20,000 in 2014, that was 50x the retail price just 13 years later. The 2021 sale of nearly $22k would be 55x twenty years later.  The $25k initial offering market cap represents a 63x multiple. While not quite approaching the multiple of the Apple-1 during the dot-com era just yet, it’s clear that the asset’s value has been more swiftly appreciated as a collectible.

The iPhone debuted in 2007 at a retail price of $599 for an 8GB version. (As an aside, it’s kind of incredible that the difference in retail price for Apple’s innovations of the moment was essentially immaterial over the course of 30 years). The higher $11k sale would be 18x the original retail price fourteen years after the product’s debut, while the earlier production $8.6k sale is just 14x. As the asset sits in trading today, having launched for $13,100, its market cap is up 230% to $42k, or 70x the original retail price. That figure, at face value, feels frothier, while the pre-IPO sales figures feel more reasonable given a pulled forward appreciation schedule.

I lay out the timeline not to attempt to scientifically state that the values of the iPod or iPhone should only be so far along, but to provide the context and trajectory of the predecessor’s acceptance and capital appreciation. Nonetheless, it may indeed merit considering that some of that trajectory has been pulled forward, as a more savvy and informed collecting and alternative asset audience reigns today. However, with that acceleration in appreciation comes heightened reason for caution. Importantly, there are still kinks to work out for the newer assets. We don't yet have a registry for them, and we have no idea how many sealed devices exist - but we do know over 6 million first generation iPhones were sold and 600,000 iPods sold in the first 14 months after they launched (two million in the first two years, but not all first generation). And as with most high-value assets, it's suspected that there is growing foul play, namely the resealing of boxes. All of that being the case, though, patience – even if not nearly as much - may be required to achieve the type of returns attained by the Apple-1 over nearly 50 years. Still, if one believes that these are culturally and historically important assets, on par with the Apple-1, that will be dearly appreciated by a new investing generation, a case can be made for the rationale behind accelerating the trajectory towards higher multiples. As always with such a rapidly rising market, it's worth emphasizing again: proceed with heightened caution.

Wrap-Up

Apple memorabilia isn’t just limited to the products that have made the company great. Sometimes, there’s just a cool factor, and typically, it involves that beautiful, rainbow Apple logo from the 80s. How often do neon signs go for half a million dollars? Because an original neon rainbow logo Apple sign sold for $564,500 at Sotheby’s earlier this year, just about a year and a half after a similar but perhaps slightly lesser example sold for $81,250.

Or if sneakers are more your thing, you can even play the Apple story fractionally in kicks. Rares is offering shares in the early 1990s Apple sneakers, complete with rainbow logo, for $18,000. These were distributed to staff at a National sales conference and have been seen on the feet of the likes of Travis Scott in recent years. One such pair, in fantastic condition, sold with Heritage Auctions for $13,750 in March, up from an $8,750 sale in a year prior.

Image: Rares

All of this data and all of these outcomes emphasize one key point: Apple (and somewhat synonymously, Steve Jobs) is viewed as a critically important historical and cultural innovator, and assets that reflect that importance and cool factor are dearly valued by both the generation that saw computers evolve and, perhaps more importantly for the future, by the generation that has known little else but having the most powerful computers right in their pockets. Surely, new innovators will rise, and perhaps their key keepsakes will be captured in NFT form, but for the moment, physical Apple artifacts represent the perfect mementos of our society’s technological evolution towards the present digital era.

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