Nerd Memorabilia Market Arises With Microchip Auction

A 1958 microchip prototype that led to the device that now powers an array of electronics will be auctioned for as much as $2 million as interest in technology memorabilia rises.

The glass-mounted tiny metal chip, designed by Nobel Prize-winning engineer Jack Kilby, has an estimated range of $1 million to $2 million in today’s sale at Christie’s in New York.

Kilby, who died in 2005, used the chip to demonstrate his invention of the integrated circuit when he worked at Texas Instruments Inc.

“You can think of it as the birth certificate of computing,” said James Hyslop, a science specialist at Christie’s. “The microchip is one of the most important steppingstones to creating modern computers.”

The sale reflects a growing demand in the collectibles market, especially for vintage technology. An original Apple-1 computer from 1976 sold last July for almost $388,000 in a Christie’s online auction. Another Apple-1 was sold in May for a record $671,400 by a German auction house.

“Those things were available on EBay for about $30,000 as recently as five years ago and now they’re commanding 15 to 20 times that,” said Dag Spicer, a senior curator at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California. “All it takes is one or two deep-pocketed buyers who establish a new floor for the price, and that’s what has happened.”

Potential Buyers

Christie’s is auctioning the microchip, another prototype and a document written by Kilby’s team member Tom Yeargan. Yeargan’s family owned the set, which has never been up for auction.

Spicer said the potential buyer pool in this price range is shallow because the cost is out of reach for most museums.

“That price is in the stratosphere,” he said. “I was scratching my head about who might be a potential buyer.”

Texas Instruments keeps one of the original microchip prototypes used by Kilby and another microchip belongs to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, said Whitney Jodry, a spokeswoman for the Dallas-based semiconductor company.

The auction market has been strong overall as international buyers spend billions of dollars for art, wine and other collectibles. Former Manchester United Manager Alex Ferguson sold HK$29.5 million ($3.8 million) of his wine collection at Christie’s in Hong Kong in May. Auction houses in New York sold a record $2.2 billion of modern, Impressionist, postwar and contemporary art last month.

Postage Stamp

An anonymous buyer on June 17 set a stamp record with the $9.5 million purchase of a one-cent postage from 1856 sold by Sotheby’s in New York.

The auction house in a statement called it “the world’s most famous stamp.” At almost one billion times its original face value, the penny stamp is easily the most expensive postage ever.

Kilby received the Nobel Prize in physics in 2000 along with Herbert Kroemer of Germany and Zhores I. Alferov of Russia, according to the Nobel Prize’s website. Robert Noyce, an entrepreneur and co-founder of Intel Corp., co-invented the integrated circuit.

The chip is “a high-value piece of property,” said Spicer, the museum curator. “It’s almost an art object in a way. Like most of those things, they basically just go up over the long term.”

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