Paul Allen’s Vintage Computer Museum Shutters, Sends Its Holdings to Auction

Living Computers: Museum + Labs, the South Seattle steward of Paul G. Allen’s collection of vintage computers and internet technology, will officially never reopen following its closure during the 2020 Covid lockdown. But many of its wares will live on, possibly in a collection near you. 

Christie’s and the estate of Allen, who died in 2018, will offer the archaic tech in “Gen One: Innovations from the Paul G. Allen Collection,” a three-part auction series. There will be two online sales, “Firsts: The History of Computing” and “Over the Horizon: Art of the Future,” both taking bids through September 12, and a live sale on September 10 titled “Pushing Boundaries: Ingenuity.”

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Tech heads with a passion for history, take note: the top lot, appearing in “Pushing Boundaries,” is a signed 1932 letter from Albert Einstein to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It has been assigned a high estimate of $6 million. 

The sales’ contents include a notice of uranium’s potential as a “new and important” source of energy, as well as a warning of its possible use in the creation of “extremely powerful bombs”—a reality realized by the Manhattan Project. Only two identical versions of the gravely consequential letter exist; the other is currently preserved in Roosevelt’s presidential library.  

A 1932 letter from Albert Einstein to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt offered in the auction “Gen One”.

Also set to appear in “Pushing Boundaries” is the space suit used by astronaut Ed White, a member of the Gemini 4 and Apollo 1 crews who became the first American to take a spacewalk on June 3, 1965. It carries a high estimate of $120,000. Visual art will hit the block too: Chesley Bonestell’s painting Saturn as Seen from Titan (ca. 1952) has a high estimate of $50,000. The same work was previously sold at Heritage Auctions in 2010 for $77,675.

“Never before has the market seen a collection of this diversity that so beautifully chronicles the history of human science and technological ingenuity—much less one assembled by a founding father of modern computing,” Marc Porter, chairman of Christie’s Americas, said in a statement. “It is a testament to the uniqueness and importance of these objects that one of the greatest innovators of our day collected, preserved, and in dozens of cases, restored them, while both drawing his own inspiration from them and sharing many of them publicly.”

Living Computers: Museum + Labs opened in October 2012, with the unique hook that visitors were encouraged to interact with artifacts of the nascent internet age, like the DEC PDP-10: KI-10 computer, from 1971, on which Allen and Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates polished their programming. The museum added a second floor in 2016 centered on more recent technology, such as self-driving cars, virtual reality, and artificial intelligence.

The museum closed due to the Covid pandemic in 2020 with plans to reopen on a later date, but according to the Seattle Times, in June of that year, layoffs began, spelling the end.

“LCM remains the only museum client I’ve worked for that not only allowed but encouraged visitors to use the collection objects, a real show of trust in museum visitors that communicated that the collection really was for them,” Margaret Middleton, an exhibit designer who worked with the museum in 2017, told the newspaper. “I’m sad to see the museum close—it was such an inspiring model.”

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