Collector and treasure hunter extraordinaire

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Collector and treasure hunter extraordinaire
Bob Luther in his collector's warehouse in Old Town. (Photo Credits: Missy Schrott)
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By Missy Schrott | [email protected]

Typewriters. Cars. Apple prototypes. Bob Luther is a collector of many things. Despite his masses of historic, valuable and cultural objects, however, his largest collection is of the countless stories he has acquired along the way.

Luther could probably talk for hours about each of his collectables as he walks around his warehouse in Old Town.

Luther has been collecting typewriters since he saw an ad in a newspaper that a typewriter shop was closing.

“I’ve always been kind of a treasure hunter, collector of stuff,” he says.

He points out shelves of typewriters he’s purchased over the years, framed old photos and maps, surfboards, antique clocks and a towering Esso sign that leans dangerously against the wall.

Each object comes with a story, and each story involves traveling to exciting places, meeting fun characters and usually waiting outside in the rain for a seller to show up.

Perhaps Luther’s greatest story is his acquisition of the Apple-1, one of the first Apple computers.

Luther came across the rare find at a storage unit auction he had ironically attended to buy the first ever Segway vehicle, not the first ever Apple computer. Luther had seen the ad for the Segway in the classifieds of a newspaper and traveled to Chantilly, Virginia, for the auction.

After waiting among a crowd of Gibson guitar seekers in below freezing temperatures at an outdoor storage center, Luther walked away with two Segways and the Apple-1 desktop computer. He had purchased the computer for about $8,000.

“I remember having it in my hands,” Luther said. “I cradled it over to my car, which was in the parking lot nearby, opened up the trunk and put it down carefully, and I’m saying to myself, ‘Some day, this thing’s going to be worth a million dollars.’”

In the following years, he stored the computer on top of the dresser in his son’s room, sometimes under piles of folded laundry.

Luther said he collects objects because he finds them interesting. When he does add something to his collection, it is often because it is significant culturally, historically or otherwise.

“He wasn’t just like a broker-dealer, you know what I mean?” his brother Mark Luther said. “He wasn’t just buying something like, ‘I think I can make 500 bucks on this, or I think I can make $1,000 on that.’”

Luther’s typewriter collection includes a typewriter with Arabic keys, the first electric typewriter and several children’s typewriters like the one pictured.

Mark Luther cited when his brother bought a Volkswagen van as an example of how Bob approaches collecting.

“He bought it thinking, you know, this is kind of like a culturally significant collectible,” he said. “He owned it for maybe three years and then at some point decided, ‘I either don’t have enough space [or] I want to by something different.’ He didn’t just buy it thinking, ‘Oh, I hope I sell this in two weeks and make a profit on it.’”

Luther’s Apple-1 story follows this collecting pattern.

Luther said he bought the computer 28 years after its 1976 release. Steve Jobs, Steve Wosniak and Ron Wayne had developed the prototype in a garage and only released about 200 copies. By comparison, millions of the next model, the Apple-2, have been sold over the years.

When Luther bought the Apple-1 in 2004, the first few generations of iPods had been released, but Apple was nowhere close to what it would become. Luther said he was familiar with Steve Jobs, however, and had an inkling of the Apple-1’s future value.

“We didn’t know that the iPhone was going to come, but you still have a feeling, this guy has a really bright future,” he said.

When Luther decided he was ready to sell the computer, he marketed it with a self-published book. He called the book “insurance” for the computer, meaning that even if the book was unsuccessful, it might garner enough interest in the Apple-1 so that it would sell high.

“Maybe one won’t do that well, but the other will,” Luther said.

Mark Luther described his brother as a passionate collector with an entrepreneurial spirit.

“It was like the book was an idea that supported the value of the computer,” he said. “By writing a book about the computer, it was almost like a marketing thing. Whereas if you’re not an entrepreneur, you might collect things, but you may never think about, well, how do I make a business out of this?”

When Esso changed its name to Exxon in 1972, Luther tracked down one of the old signs, picked it up at a junkyard in Rockville, Maryland, and drove it home draped over his mother’s station wagon.

Luther’s book demonstrates his need for knowledge and the passion he puts into his collections. While researching the project, Luther was able to track down and interview Steve Wosniak and befriend the third founder of Apple, Ron Wayne.

“Bob reached out to him, and all of a sudden Bob and Ron Wayne are like buddies,” Mark Luther said.

Wayne is widely known for selling his 10 percent share of Apple back to Jobs and Wosniak for $800. Had he kept his stake, he would have become a billionaire. Luther and Wayne attended Christie’s auction in New York together in December of 2014, where Wayne sold documentation he had designed for Steve Jobs, and Luther sold his computer for $365,000.

“I can tell you this, he’s a most remarkable man. He never seemed to do anything halfway,” Wayne said. “He had been so meticulous about every aspect of that auction both for his material and for mine. It was really quite remarkable.”

Mark Luther said escapades like these never fazed him, since the men in his family had been collectors his whole life. Mark, Bob, their third brother Mike and their father enjoyed buying, repairing and reselling cars together.

“We’ve certainly been to a lot of auctions together. It was kind of a family affair – well, family with my brothers and father,” he said. “We would go to Arizona every year to an antique car, a big Barrett-Jackson auction.”

At one point growing up, Mark Luther said there were 12 or 13 cars spilling out of their driveway onto the street and around the cul-de-sac.

“It became a little bit like a car collector’s house. People in the neighborhood knew that this was one of the houses where collectors live,” he said.

Mark Luther said some of his brother’s most interesting car-related collectibles included a limousine that was used in a president’s inaugural parade, six Secret Service Harley Davidson motorcycles and the Mello Yello racing suit that Tom Cruise wore in the movie “Days of Thunder.”

“He enjoys the history of the items he collects, but also the people he meets through that process,” Mark Luther said.

Luther’s warehouse is filled with culturally and historically significant objects he’s been collecting his whole life.

“When Bob goes out to look at the car, he probably gets as much enjoyment out of meeting the owner who says, ‘Yeah, I bought this car new in 1965, and my children, we enjoyed it, we did this and that.’ Bob enjoys that part of the process as much as the actual object,” he said.

When Wayne reflected on the New York trip, he talked more about Luther’s company than the auction itself.

“We had a lot of chatting and fun,” Wayne said. “[He was] effervescent, I would say. He was a very, very pleasant traveling companion, and we talked about many things, and he was helpful in everything. I think he enjoyed my company. I certainly enjoyed his.”

“There are people that just don’t like other people,” Mark Luther said. “They prefer to just not be social, [but Bob] most enjoys the story and the people behind every object.”

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