Collecting vintage Macs: don’t overpay

Back in March, Cult of Mac published a good article titled How to start a collection of classic Macs, written by D. Griffin Jones. It’s the kind of piece I wish I could have written, but as you can see, time’s not my friend as of late. The author and I share exactly the same fundamental reasons behind our interest in collecting vintage Macs:

I collect old Macs because I care deeply about history. I want to have an informed perspective on the past so I can better understand trends of user-interface design and the evolution of technology.

I really like how the article is structured. Starting from any novice’s main problem — where to begin? — the article proposes different sections in the form of questions, to give people some basic orientation: Is this a highly sought-after computer? Does this classic Mac have unique problems? Does this computer need specific accessories? What software will this vintage Mac run? Is this computer getting more or less expensive?

And when we come to the last section, about the value of vintage Macs and where to buy them, it’s here that one of my long-standing beefs with the world of vintage Mac collecting gets triggered: the increasingly absurd prices of pretty much any Mac that is considered vintage.

Griffin Jones writes:

Like cars, most computers prove most expensive when brand new, and slowly depreciate as they get older and less useful. Then, prices of certain models rise as they become rare and collectible.

True. The problem is, vintage Macs aren’t luxury goods, but are more and more frequently treated like such by people who just want to take advantage of gullible Mac collectors. A Quadra 700 isn’t a 1961 Jaguar E-Type or a vintage Rolex watch.

As Jones writes, eBay is indeed the worst place to look for vintage Macs. The asking price for so many older Macs, regardless of model or actual rarity, is often ludicrously inflated. And if you’re located outside the US, it gets even worse, because in addition to international shipping you’ll have to pay import taxes, a particularly sour ingredient that further drives the total cost to often untenable heights, especially when you’re after some heavy equipment, like Power Macintosh models in the tower form factor, heavy all-in-ones like the eMac, or bulky peripherals such as laser printers, CRT monitors, or large flat panel monitors like the 30-inch Cinema Display.

This price inflation for vintage Macs, as I often said, is something that positively angers me. When I had a bit more free time, I used to engage with sellers asking ridiculously high prices and directly ask them how they came up with that number. Sometimes I would find someone who wasn’t really ‘specialised’ in vintage Macs and was simply selling them as part of estate finds, or old hardware discarded by companies that went out of business, and they told me they had performed a cursory search online to try to assess the value of these machines, and priced them accordingly. I don’t really blame this type of seller — it seems clear that they’re not profiteers trying to scam collectors. They just don’t know the value (or lack thereof) of what they’re selling, and unfortunately they often end up basing their asking price on other sellers’ ludicrous prices, thus perpetuating the problem.

But the most fun interactions have been with proud sellers who try to justify why there’s absolutely nothing wrong with selling a base-specced 300MHz clamshell iBook G3 at $1,500. Common ‘reasons’ include:

  • It’s in good condition — While it’s certainly a good thing, it oughtn’t to be the sole reason driving the price up. It’s not uncommon to find people who want to sell you pretty-looking vintage Macs… that don’t work. If the ‘good condition’ attribute is, in the seller’s logic, what’s driving the price up for this Mac, then the ‘it doesn’t work’ should be the attribute that drives the price down. But it’s funny how often they forget this part. A good-condition working Mac is another story, of course. But really, there are so many factors to consider here, and sometimes being good-looking and good-working is not enough to justify certain prices.
  • It’s rare — In 90% of the cases, it’s really not. Very few Macs are indeed rare models. What sellers often mean with their claims of rarity is something more like, It’s rare to find this Mac model in working condition nowadays. Here the response is a bit more complicated. If the Mac is a characteristically reliable model (because it already has a more modern motherboard that’s not full of potentially decayed capacitors; because it doesn’t have one of those problematic GPUs that are known to fail after a while; etc.), then it’s not rare to find such model in working condition. If, on the other hand, the Mac that’s being sold has the characteristics of a potentially flaky model (e.g. it’s a very old model that has never been inspected or recapped; it is a Mac model or Apple device with design flaws or unreliable components that will lead to problems in the future if not addressed; and so forth), then yes, it’s quite fortunate that it is still in working condition, but it’s very likely that it’s not going to stay that way for long. Buyers who don’t know better may be tempted to spend an unfair amount of money on a machine that will soon cost them more money in fixes, repairs, and maintenance. And while there are vintage Mac enthusiasts who don’t mind this kind of additional effort and expenses, it may be a huge letdown for people who are new to vintage computing. Getting to experience vintage computers, maybe even to just play some classic games, should be a fun diversion. It shouldn’t be a frustrating ordeal.
  • Maybe this Mac isn’t worth hundreds/thousands of dollars to you, but surely someone else will appreciate… — blah blah blah. This is the argument most sellers who reacted to my enquiries ended up making after some back and forth. It’s the one I like to call the plausible deniability argument. If you’ve been looking for a Colour Classic, or a Macintosh TV, or a PowerBook 100 for a long time, and you finally found ’The Opportunity’, is it worth overpaying for it? For some apparently it is. And that’s what in turn bolsters this kind of logic on the part of certain sellers and turns them into speculators. And that’s why on eBay you find a rather common 15-inch aluminium PowerBook G4 from 2003, not even in flawless condition, at a price you could easily buy two M1 Mac minis. Or even an original MacBook Air at essentially the same price it was sold back in 2008.

In the past I used to make these sellers/speculators the targets of my frustration at this state of things. But it obviously was rather foolish and naïve on my part. The issue is elsewhere. The issue are certain enthusiasts or collectors who are ready to pay an inordinate amount of money for a particular vintage Mac or device they’ve been seeking for a long time if the right opportunity presents to them. Because they are so eager to add a PowerBook 100 to their collection, they will pay $2,000 or more for it. Does that mean that a PowerBook 100 is worth $2,000? Some sellers will tell you, Yes, because there are people who will buy it for that price.

The right thing to do, in my opinion, is to drive prices down by refusing to play the ‘value game’. If more people started reacting with If you ask $2,000 for a PowerBook 100, you’re out of your fucking mind, maybe after not managing to sell vintage equipment for such exorbitant prices, more sellers would get the message and reconsider their ‘incredible offers’.

So yes, when you’re looking for a vintage Mac — even that Mac you’ve wanted so badly for years — try to avoid overpaying for it. Even if budget is not a problem for you, try not to be selfish about it, and see the issue in its entirety. Try not to be part of the problem of price inflation in the vintage Mac market. Negotiate the price with the seller. Send the message that the price they’re asking is too high. And ultimately, be patient. Often these ‘unique opportunities’ will present again in the future, hopefully at a lower price. Collecting vintage Macs should not be like collecting vintage cars or watches or wine — i.e. a prerogative of a few affluent individuals. Vintage Macs, again, are not luxury goods. They are, for the most part, a hobby. A hobby that should remain fun and accessible to as many people as possible.

One thought on “Collecting vintage Macs: don’t overpay

  1. A well considered and well-argued piece. I have the same problem with s/h Penguin books. Pretty much every argument in your article transfers nicely to Penguins (Pelicans, Puffins, etc). Rare? Seldom. As valuable as eBay prices suggest? Often not – and the severely inflated prices of ordinary Penguins, relatively easy to find in s/h bookshops are a joke. The parallels are clear!
    My collection of old Macs is reasonably extensive and I don’t, in the main, lust after particular models – the majority have simply been given to me as friends upgrade to newer models. My principal reason for collecting and looking after them is simply to preserve them. But as Ricardo points out, they need maintenance!

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