Vintage typewriters

Tapping into the Market

Typewriters collage Auction Team Breker [M]
Words are not so cheap.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Most old typewriters hold very little value – only those that are rare, in very good condition or have had celebrity users fetch high prices.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • The typewriter market boomed in the late 1800s as the result of growing office industrialization.
    • A machine used by U.S. novelist Cormac McCarthy fetched $245,000 (€223,000) at auction in 2009.
    • Most classic typewriters are valued at four to five digit figures.
  • Audio

    Audio

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Uwe Breker’s fingers glide almost lovingly across the black metal and enamel flower decorations and press the typewriter’s keys vigorously — the typebars dart upward and land with firm snaps.

“Here it is,” says the auction-house owner. A Sholes & Glidden, manufactured from 1874 onward — a piece of history to hold in your hands.

The typewriter has a cultural history spanning many chapters. One involves the industrialization of offices. Another involves women. In 1880, 40 percent of stenographers and typists in North America were female. And the latest and perhaps closing chapter: Countless collectors from Europe, Asia and the United States covet the mechanical relics of yesteryear.

“Sought-after historical typewriters are also quite suitable as an investment,” said Mr. Breker, the owner of the world’s largest auction house for technical and mechanical antiques, in Cologne.

Enthusiasts are willing to pay more than €10,000 ($11,090) for a genuine Sholes & Glidden, which was named after its inventor. The model was produced at the Remington factory known for sewing machines and weapons, and in later years, as the Remington Model No. 1, became known the world over as the first usable typewriter.

Pulitzer Prize-winning U.S. writer Cormac McCarthy had typed his literary masterpieces on it. He had paid $150 for it in 1963. The auction winner paid $245,000.

But five- or six-digit figures are not particularly typical of the market for vintage typewriters. Values are based on the degree of preservation and rarity along with the prominence of previous owners, and few boast both.

But that’s not always the case.

At Christie’s in New York in 2009, an ancient, small, blue portable typewriter — an utterly unassuming model — was put up for auction. But Pulitzer Prize-winning U.S. writer Cormac McCarthy had typed his literary masterpieces on it. He had paid $150 for it in 1963. The auction winner paid $245,000.

Mr. Breker knows the stories behind the typewriters in his private collection. Many of the machines have increased in value since he acquired them. But he warns that whoever buys at random on the Internet or at flea markets shouldn’t expect such a rise in value.

“Earlier, many office-equipment mechanics were interested in the old technology,” he said. Today, that generation of collectors is disappearing, and their heirs want the money, not the machines.

Typewriter enthusiast Leonhard Dingwerth bought an entire collection of typewriters for €17,000 at the beginning of his years of collecting. But of the 70 machines he acquired, only 10 interested him personally. Upon reselling the others, he found that the market for standard machines “was more or less saturated.” Since then, he recommends “class instead of mass.”

Such “class” models are typewriters that mark stages of technical or historical development — such as the first machines manufactured in Germany: The Hammonia produced from 1882, the Kosmopolit (1888), the Kneist (1893) and the Graphic (1895).

typewriter
Typewriters have taken many shapes and forms over the years. Source: Auction Team Breker

 

They were followed by machines such as the Bar-Lock or Fitch that transformed the blind typing normal up to then — the letters had remained hidden under the cylinder — into writing that could be seen at once.

The widespread but highly decorative Mignon — an index machine — is a popular entry-level model on the collectors’ market. The red version is more expensive than the typically black model. The red goes for prices in the lower four-digit range.

A highly valued rarity is the Malling Hansen. “There are perhaps still around 38 specimens,” Mr. Breker said. The magnificent models are each worth more than €100,000. Mr. Breker owns one: a brass-colored sphere on which the typing bars stand like needles in a pin-cushion.

Rasmus Malling-Hansen, director of an institution in Copenhagen for people who were deaf and mute, invented what from 1867 became the first factory-produced typewriter, which soon found a famous user.

It was the nearly blind philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche who enthusiastically proclaimed that “after a week of practice, there is no longer a need for the eyes to be involved.” But the typing was laborious, and the globe was subject to breakdowns. He said that it “is delicate like a small dog and causes much trouble.” He soon went back to writing by hand.

Despite such setbacks, the triumphal march of typewriters was unstoppable — until the computer age. But even today, the old machines have their devotees — like Sten Nadolny, the author of the novel “The Discovery of Slowness.” He says using a computer makes him overwrite. Generating copy by typewriter is an extraordinary corrective, he says.


Video: The famous Malling Hansen writing ball.

 

Simone Wermelskirchen is a Handelsblatt editor. To contact the author: Wermelskirchen@handelsblatt.com

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