Wright Auctions, a leading venue for the sales of contemporary design goods, has fetched five-figure deals for a Hans Wegner desk, a George Nakashima settee and a chair designed by Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen.
For an auction that is set to take place on Thursday, there’s a new item at the top of the list: a first-generation Apple iPhone in its original packaging.
Smaller than a Cedric Hartman desk lamp, and not nearly as obvious of a status item as, say, the Yves Klein table a few lots over, the 2007 iPhone has a floor price of $32,000. That is the amount a prospective buyer must be willing to spend simply to get in on the action. Wright Auctions estimates that the winning bid is likely to fall between $40,000 and $60,000.
Never mind that iPhones produced before 2015 are incompatible with Apple’s latest operating system, iOS 16. Or that the hard drive for the iPhone in 2007 allowed up to only 8 gigabytes. Or that the list price for that model was $599.
“There are so few tangible design objects that just change everything,” said Richard Wright, the president of Wright Auctions, speaking on Tuesday from his offices in Chicago on the 512-gigabyte iPhone 14 that he bought in January. “This is that tangible object.”
Steve Jobs unveiled the iPhone before an excited crowd at the MacWorld Conference & Expo in San Francisco in January 2007. Six months later, it was in stores. Writing in The New York Times, David Pogue said the device mostly lived up to the hype, calling it “a tiny, gorgeous hand-held computer whose screen is a slab of touch-sensitive glass.”
Mr. Wright added that the vintage iPhone’s “purity of user interface and clarity of information” harkened back to the game-changing midcentury industrial designs of Dieter Rams, whose electronics work for Braun and collections of furniture for Vitsœ+Zapf were the subjects of a 2011 retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the inspiration for a 2018 auction at Wright Auctions.
Although perhaps that was not the best parallel for Mr. Wright to draw.
As he noted, the Dieter Rams auction was “a labor of love,” meaning it was a fairly fruitless financial endeavor. Winning bidders for his Bauhaus-inspired electronics paid $32 for a black alarm clock from 1975 and $1,750 for a black and white super 8 camera, also from 1975. The most expensive object sold — for a bid of $8,450 — was a 1960s sofa made from leather, aluminum and fiberglass.
The auction that includes the 2007 iPhone will start at noon Central Daylight Time. Bidders can participate online or by phone.
The $32,000 floor price came about partly because there is some precedent for what an unopened first-generation iPhone will fetch: Last month, an unopened iPhone sold for $63,356 through LCG Auctions, a Louisiana consignor.
The only thing being revealed about the provenance of the one to be sold through Wright is that it came to Mr. Wright via Donald Gajadhar, a New York appraiser specializing in antiques and the decorative arts.
In an interview, Mr. Gajadhar would not divulge the name of the seller, saying only that he was a New Yorker who works in finance and had something of a high profile on the social scene.
“I think I’ve said too much,” he added.
Then he said more, noting that this particular iPhone was given to its mystery owner by a business friend shortly after its June 2007 release. At the time, Mr. Gajadhar said, the man was not ready to part with his Motorola Razr phone.
The marketing of the Razr phone was centered almost entirely on its light weight and sleek design. At 3.5 ounces, it was billed as the thinnest cellphone on the market. The rival iPhone was 4.8 ounces.
“He loved the Razr like it was a Star Trek communicator,” Mr. Gajadhar said. “And he was really not into social media. He used it for calls, not apps.”
The business friend kept asking the man how he liked the gift, Mr. Gajadhar continued. And the man repeatedly avoided giving his friend an honest answer: that the iPhone was sitting in a drawer, unopened. By the time he finally joined the modern world and bought one for himself, the 2007 model was obsolete.
As Mr. Gajadhar put it, the client now feels too guilty to come clean. But the fact that it may fetch enough to bankroll a BMW might be another reason for the owner to stay in the shadows. (Who wants to share?)