‘Enigma’ ciphering machine brings $101,000 in vintage technology auction

COLOGNE, Germany – A legendary ‘Enigma’ ciphering machine from 1938, which influenced WWII dramatically, was the top lot at Auction Team Breker’s May 26 sale of vintage science, technology and toys. Patented by Dr. Arthur Scherbius and built by Chiffriermaschinen A.G. Heimsoeth und Rinke of Berlin, the iconic three-rotor machine is one of the most complex code-drafting devices ever invented.

German cipher way spy code machineThis German-made Enigma code writing machine sold for $101,450 at a May 26, 2012 science, technology and toy auction.

So complex are the Enigma’s 22 billion possible combinations, an original prospectus claimed, that it would take one man working continuously day and night, and trying a different cipher-key every minute, 42,000 years to exhaust all the possibilities. However, it only took a private buyer just a few minutes to bid the machine’s final sale price to $101,450, more than 10 times the published reserve and one of the highest prices ever paid for an ‘Enigma’ machine at auction.

Although the Enigma earned top lot honors, the sale saw high-flying prices from so many collectable categories (almost 1,000 lots in 11 hours!) the range of objects sold spanned more than 200 years of human technological accomplishments.

Among the ‘office antiques’ sold was a desirable Hammonia typewriter of 1882, the first serially produced German writing machine. It retained its original transfer decoration and, more remarkable, its original ribbon ink. It brought $23,056. The first Russian ‘Arithmometer’ by Odhner from 1886 doubled its estimate by selling for $8,450, and the rare ‘Tropical Wall Telephone’ by L.M. Ericsson, circa 1900, sold for high $8,240.

Another rather macabre entry was a 1920s working model by Charles Ahrens titled ‘The English Execution’. Working models are large pier-side automata built to horrify and delight English day-trippers at seaside resorts such as Blackpool and Brighton during the first half of the last century. The handsome mahogany case and the grisly subject matter ensured international interest at $9,222.

Early horology was the subject of some of the fiercest bidding of the auction. In addition to 11 remarkable tower clock movements, the earliest from the 16th century selling for $10,000, was a selection of gold pocket watches perfect for collectors with limited space and a large budget. An open-face gentleman’s watch with rare sur-plateau musical movement brought $11,885 against a pre-sale estimate of $1,500 to $2,250. Other musical objets de vertu bucked the trend, with an exquisite turquoise-set gold and enamel vinaigrette with early barrillet movement sold for $40,000, more than twice its upper estimate. Another fine gold musical snuff box decorated with an enamelled deign of cobalt-blue buds flanked by flaming torches reached $13,835, while at the opposite end of the scale of size and volume a large interchangeable musical box by Baker & Co., with three cylinders and matching table fetched $15,370. And finally the fine Silver-Gilt Singing Bird Automaton by Bruguier, circa 1835, went for superbly high $49,200.

three horn gramophoneLike something out of Dr. Seuss illustration, this German triple-horn gramophone sold for $6,150.

Gramophones and phonographs were in abundance and offered across 50 lots, including several rarities and a few oddities that nevertheless generated heated online bidding. In the first category was a well-preserved Edison Opera phonograph with mahogany case and matching gooseneck horn for $10,000, a floor-standing Phono Lamp for $4,440 and a Jugendstil ‘Klingsor’ gramophone by Krebs & Klenk of Hanau for $6,338. Another rare and unusual machine, attributed to the same maker, provided a 1920s audio-visual display with revolving lights and mirrors for $16,900. The second category included a remarkable German triple-horn gramophone that would not have been out of place in a Dr. Seuss illustration for $6,150 and a still more inventive Edison Standard phonograph with custom-fitted duplex horns made from a pair of antlers supported by a brass lyre $3,380. But without a doubt the most surreal of the group was a Dahliesque violin gramophone  – inspired by the Palmodian – with a violin instead of a horn for $5,860.

An unusual gramophone inside a gilded ‘Buddha’ statue sold for surprisingly high $7,380. A well preserved ‘Wurlitzer Mod. 1080’ jukebox from 1947 changed its home for high $23,000.

The remarkable model railway system of Josué Droz comprising three locomotives, 29 carriages, rolling stock, buildings and bridges, which was constructed by hand from 1925 – 1936, yet despite (or perhaps because of) its complexity displayed only once for just 2 weeks (area 1,033 sq ft or 96 sq meter), provided a suitably spectacular conclusion to the auction at $49,200.

For more details on the May 26 auction, visit Auction Team Breker.

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