The Post-Dispatch may be giving the wrong idea about the dollar value of vintage computers

Last Updated on September 6, 2018 by Dave Farquhar

Articles like Top 10 collectibles for value, from the Post-Dispatch this week, frequently make me nervous, mostly because of statements like this one:

[D]id you know that computer parts can bring home cash, too?

Statements like that tend to get people’s hopes up way too high. I find the timing interesting though, seeing as a TRS-80 Model 1 sold at a St. Louis estate sale this past weekend. The estate seller’s reaction? “Normally you can’t give that stuff away.”

I know she’s right. A couple of months ago I bought a 19-inch LCD monitor at one of her sales. I paid $6 for it, marked down from $12. And it was late in the day. Hundreds of people had passed it up for $12, and at least a hundred passed it up for six bucks–about the price of a fast-food lunch. It’s perfectly usable–no dead pixels, and it has both DVI and VGA ports, and even has the desirable 16:10 aspect ratio, but people want bigger screens than that these days, generally. It wasn’t new enough to fetch significant money.

That’s why she was surprised that old Radio Shack computer sold, and seemed a bit shocked that it sold on the first day.

Some old computer parts are valuable, but that TRS-80 Model 1 selling doesn’t suddenly make a run-of-the-mill mass-market Pentium III from the late 1990s valuable. To be honest, I was surprised the computer sold. I’m glad, and that’s why I asked about it, but selling old computers isn’t easy.

I see 1980s computers fairly regularly. Usually they’re priced too high, and usually they sit. The majority of setups I see probably won’t move for anything more than $50. If you want top dollar, you’ll have to include lots of pictures, mention it in the text of the ad, and post the sale as early in the week as you can in hopes that some local computer collector will see it and make a point to come out during the weekend. A picture of the computer actually working will help even more, but if the owner doesn’t know if it still works, I wouldn’t risk setting it up incorrectly and damaging it.

Off the top of my head, I can think of a few items that fall outside of that $50 rule:

Original 128K Macintoshes. Not to be confused with the dirt common 512K Mac, which looks just like it, and is likely to be a hard sell at $50.

The Apple Lisa or Macintosh XL. This was a famous flop, and you probably won’t find one, but if you do, it’s worth a lot of money. Chances are the owner will know what he or she has, too.

The original Apple II. Not the II plus, not the IIe, and not the IIgs or IIc. I tried to rank them in order of desirability. A II or II+ can probably fetch more than $50. Anything newer will be tougher.

An Apple III. This was another famous Apple flop. They didn’t work when they were new, so don’t expect it to work now either.

Commodore PETs. There were a lot of models of them. All are much less common than the popular VIC-20 or Commodore 64. Disk drives for the PET are very valuable too, but disk drives for the 64 and VIC-20 are one of those things you can’t give away, with two exceptions. The early VIC-1540 drive is somewhat desirable. But it has to say VIC-1540 on the front. If it says 1541 on the front and 1540 on the back, it’s common. The 3.5-inch Commodore 1581 drive is uncommon and valuable.

Commodore 64s with silver labels. Commodore only made them that way for about a year, and the early machines had a few well publicized flaws so many of them were discarded over the years. Also, the portable model of the 64, the SX-64, will sell and probably for a little more than $50 to the right person. Make sure you mention it in the ad and include a good picture.

Commodore Amigas. A bare-bones Amiga may have a hard time topping $50 but an elaborate setup will move. The big-box Amiga 2000, 3000, and 4000 models are the most valuable, and will bring $100 at a sale easily.

The original IBM PC 5150. Not to be confused with the newer and much more common PC/XT, which looks just like it and won’t sell for $50. See a pattern?

Name-brand 386DX and 486 PCs. Many early PC games play best on these machines, so a nice one has the potential to sell to a hobbyist. The bigger the name brand, the better: IBM, Compaq, Dell, and HP are likely to do best. If the computer has a sound card and CD-ROM drive, it will be more valuable. A 386SX is considerably less desirable, so don’t be surprised if it doesn’t sell.

IBM and compatible CGA and EGA monitors. Normally you can’t give away old monitors, but CGA and EGA monitors are rare enough to have some value today. Don’t expect big bucks, but it will sell if you identify it as such.

Speaking of IBM, an IBM PC/XT 286, a PC/AT, or a PS/2 Model 50, 60, 70, or 80 will have some value.

Generally speaking, you can’t give old printers away, especially dot-matrix printers. I’m sure there’s an exception or two, but I don’t know it.

So there are a few dozen types of old computers that are definitely worth messing with, but unless the computer is very new, or old and somehow noteworthy like those above, it’s likely to sit all weekend. Also, if the box, original manuals, or any of the other paperwork are still hanging around, include that in the sale. Yes, the box it came in makes the computer more valuable. And collectors like knowing where their stuff came from, so while an original invoice probably won’t make it sell for any more money, it might very well make it sell faster.

This is why I don’t like blanket statements like, “Did you know that computer parts can bring in cash?” Yes they can, but if you haven’t been following the industry for 30 years like I have–yes, I’ve been following it since I was in grade school–it’s really easy to shoot for way too much cash and end up having a pile of unused computer gear at the end of the weekend. Don’t consider this an exhaustive list, because I wrote it up off the top of my head, but there’s a lot more out there that’s recycling fodder than there is hidden treasure.

I’ll close with one last thought. If someone lingers at the computer stuff but doesn’t buy, and you’re past the initial rush of the day, it pays to ask a question or two. You can probably get a good feel for whether your price is too high by having a five-minute conversation about it. And if you get an offer toward the end of the day for something less than what you’ve marked, it’s probably a good idea to take it.

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2 thoughts on “The Post-Dispatch may be giving the wrong idea about the dollar value of vintage computers

  • February 6, 2014 at 9:55 pm

    Wonder what an Osborne is going for these days?

  • February 8, 2014 at 10:58 pm

    CRT iMacs can also be worth something north of $50. Macs from this century (lcd style) are of course worth significantly more.

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