The one-time Apple slogan, Think Different, is an idea Jake Harms has taken to heart.

It is taped to the wall in his workshop in Hildreth, Nebraska, in the US, where, instead of dumping broken Macs, he drills them apart and transforms them into aquariums, clocks and lamps.

“I don’t have a hard time seeing an old beige Dell going off to recycling. But, something as good looking as a G3 or G4 or any Apple product can be turned into something else,” said the 31-year-old photographer and videographer. His iMacAquarium sells from $299 through jakeharms.com.

With orders for the funky repurposed products flowing from the US, the UK, Australia and Japan, it seems that Harms’ predilection for the sleek design and jewel-like colours of the iMacs is widely shared.

“I’ve been building them for eight years now and no one’s ever asked me to make an aquarium out of an old Dell computer, or any other model,” he said. “It doesn’t really hurt my feelings to see an ugly computer get recycled in the regular way but with Apple products it’s different. The design is so good that they can look just as good hanging on your wall as a clock or sitting in the corner as an aquarium.”

The appeal

While Harms scoops up old iMacs at scrap prices of around $5 from electronic recycling centres a growing cohort of tech enthusiasts are vying for rare, vintage Macintoshes at six-figure sums.

Apple’s success and historical significance mean that although personal computers predating Apple-1, such as Kenbak-1 from 1971, are also collectible, there is more cachet — and therefore a higher price — to acquiring an Apple-1.

Yet despite continuing fascination with the budding years of Apple from its founding in 1976 — a documentary about co-founder Steve Jobs, The Man in the Machine, is slated for release on 4th September in the US — not everyone is switched on to the value of early hardware.

An old computer jettisoned at a recycling centre in Milpitas, California, in April, turned out to be an Apple-1 — one of only around 200 first-generation models designed and hand-built by Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak. The discovery was made when a manager at recycling firm CleanBayArea opened a box of e-waste dropped off a week or so earlier by a woman aged around 60 or 70. The Apple-1 has since been sold to a private collector for $200,000 and CleanBayArea has mounted a Facebook and media campaign to try to trace the donor to pass on her 50% share.

With technology becoming outdated almost faster than we can blink, it was an easy, yet costly, mistake to make. Before chucking out an old model, check which Apple products may be worth something.

The gems among them

The first vintage Apple model to go under the hammer at an international auction house was at Christie’s in London in November 2010, according to James Hyslop, Christie’s science specialist. An Apple-1 from 1976, it was sold with original manuals and bill of receipt signed by Steve Jobs. Although not in working order, it fetched £133,250 ($207,719).

An Apple-1 from 1976 that did work was sold for $387,750 at First Bytes: Iconic Technology from the Twentieth Century, a Christie’s sale held online from New York in June and July 2013.

The reason the Apple-1 is so coveted is because of its rarity, Hyslop said. “Also, it serves as the birth certificate for what is now probably the most important company in the world.”

Most coveted

While the Apple-1 is the most sought-after item, early examples of the Apple-2 and the Lisa, named after Steve Jobs’ daughter, are also prized, Hyslop said. The Apple-2 dates from 1977 and the Lisa-1, a precursor to the Macintosh, was released in 1983. If the computer is in immaculate condition and good working order, the value goes up. If it’s also a prototype, or was previously owned by an outstanding figure in the history of computing, the price skyrockets.

“In the First Byte sale in 2013 we had a Macintosh SE, which isn’t necessarily the rarest of Apple computers, but this one had a very unusual transparent case to it,” he said. The model from circa 1987 fetched $6,250. At the same sale a prototype of Apple’s early laptops with an Apple Computer property pass dated 8/3/90 sold for $2,500.

The Lisa-1, originally sold for $9,995, is today worth at least $25,000 in working order, said Adam Rosen, curator of The Vintage Mac Museum. Over the past 10 years, the 49-year-old IT consultant has acquired more than 100 pre-Intel Macs that he restores at his home in Malden, Massachusetts.

What's Valuable?

What’s hot
Apple 1
Lisa 1 prototypes

What’s not
Standard issue Macintoshes

Source: James Hyslop, science specialist, Christie’s in London

Also in demand, he said, is the 20th-anniversary edition Mac released in 1997 for $7,000. It was later reduced to $1,500 and discontinued in 1998. The fact it was a commercial flop means it’s harder to find and therefore a collector’s item. Today, an anniversary model in good condition, with the original box, is worth between $1,000 and $1,500, he said.

Some collectibles can even be snapped up for less than the original sales price. This is primarily because of their significance to the history of computing, explained Rosen. It means their financial value is likely to rise in future.

“It's hard to pin down a timeframe but I'd say in a decade they should have appreciated in value notably, especially for working units,” he said.

This applies to the Lisa-2, sold in greater numbers than the Lisa-1 from 1984 to 1986 for between $3,495 and $5,495. Today, the Lisa-2 fetches around $2,500 in working order.

What’s my Mac worth?

For price guides, consult Rosen’s blog posting How Much is My Old Mac Worth? on The Vintage Mac Museum, or Jason Ponic’s  Your Vintage Apple Computer Market Guide.

With few exceptions, most Mac models are worth about $50 and those of value are in the few hundred dollars range, Rosen said. “If you have the packaging that can double the value,” he explained.  “Generally, upgrades decrease the value.”

EBay and Craigslist are worth looking at too, he said, but with a caveat. “People sometimes ask outrageous prices on eBay. After Steve Jobs died, prices tripled. You’ve got to look at the completed listing for what something actually sold for, not necessarily the asking price.”

iPod, iPhone, iPad

“People always ask me if the first iPhone is going to be the next equivalent of the Apple-1,” Hyslop said. “I’m sure there are people who are actively collecting those early iPhones, but the iPhone was released in millions upon millions. It’s unlikely that you’d see something that was that common make the same sort of price.

“But equally, in terms of importance, it’s difficult to predict. Is the iPhone in 20 or 40 years going to be considered one of these revolutionary moments that shaped the modern world? iPhones and iPads are far too recent inventions for anyone to be making long-term predictions.”

Rosen agreed but said, “The first of anything is always valuable. You can find original iPhones for less than $100 but they’re going to be worth more than that in 10 years, for sure.

“Original iPods with the spinning click wheel — if you can find first-generation stuff like that and it’s working, with the box, in cosmetic condition, plan to hold on to it for 25 years and then it’s going to be worth some money.”

Bottom line

With vintage computers, prototypes and early models released in small quantities will always trump later models mass-produced in vast numbers. Regarding the top end of the market, Hyslop said: “It all depends on future tastes but at the moment there is certainly a strong appetite for this material.”

Presently, private collectors are vying with new private science museums in the Far East for the rare vintage models.

Rosen, who’s invested around $20,000 in his collection, said, “It’s not an immediate quick investment thing, unless you’re buying the Apple-1 type gear. For me, short-term profit isn’t the goal. Eventually I’d like to sell them as part of retirement but right now it’s about fun and about using them.”

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