Auctions | April 14, 2015

World Record at Bonhams: Most Valuable Enigma Machine Sells for $269,000


New York—As part of the Fine Books & Manuscripts sale on April 13, Bonhams sold a German Enigma machine for $269,000, a world record at auction.

The 3-rotor Enigma I Enciphering Machine (aka Heeres Enigma) is in complete working condition and sold for almost 1.5 times its high estimate. The machine, with serial number 18660, was manufactured for the German military in Berlin in July of 1944. Few of these machines are known to have survived the war. Patented by Arthur Scherbius in 1918, the Enigma Machine uses three interchangeable rotors, which scramble plain-text messages to produce a cipher text message, a virtually unbreakable code. The Germans first used this machine as their primary cipher device in 1926 to encrypt naval coded messages. The code was finally cracked by a team of young British code breakers at Bletchley Park led by none other than Alan Turing.

Cassandra Hatton, Director of History of Science & Technology at Bonhams said, “The results of this exciting sale confirm that the demand for scientific and technological artifacts is strong and continues to grow. This particular machine is in excellent condition, not to mention still operational, so it is not surprising that it achieved this remarkable result.”

The auction also sold a 56-page manuscript by Alan Turing for $1,025,000. The manuscript, written in a simple notebook bought from a stationers in Cambridge, UK, is the only extensive autograph manuscript by Turing in existence.

Other highlights of the afternoon include:

  • The first edition, first issue of the King James translation of the Holy Bible, dated 1611, sold for $175,000, well past the high estimate. Considered one of the great works of literature, this Bible was the work of 50 translators from numerous languages.
  • A Revolutionary War manuscript map detailing the army camp formation of Lieutenant General Burgoyne’s army and the Battle in Saratoga fetched $81,250, over 16 times the high estimate. This map shows the position of General Burgoyne’s army, probably in a wheat-field above Mill Brook, before the pre-emptive attack on the American forces under Generals Gates and Arnold.
  • A rare autographed document signed by James Bowie that sold for $56,250. The American soldier died valiantly defending the Alamo but not before establishing a reputation as the South's fiercest knife fighter, gained by the Sandbar Fight at Natchez, where Bowie survived several bullet and stab wounds to brutally kill his attackers with a large hunting knife, and inspiring others to create their own "Bowie" knives.
  • A handwritten and signed letter by the world’s first computer programmer, Ada Lovelace that sold for $27,500. The letter, dated 1839, is addressed to the celebrated English journalist, Albany Fonblanque (1793-1872) and mentions Charles Babbage.
  • The first issue of William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury published in New York by Jonathan Cape & Harrison Smith in 1929, which realized $27,500. This was Faulkner’s first great novel and the most influential American usage of stream-of-consciousness narration.

The next Books & Manuscripts auction will be held on June 16 entitled “Voices of the 20th Century.”