Every flea-market aficionado dreams of the day they find a true treasure. Not so long ago, that day came for a collector at a flea market in Bucharest, Romania, who found an intact German Enigma machine, the super-secret coding gadget used by Third Reich during World War II. After paying roughly $114 for the machine, Reuters reports that the cryptography machine sold at auction for roughly $51,620 to an anonymous online bidder earlier this week.
The seller was no ordinary thrift-store shopper. “It belonged to a mathematician who has spent most of his life decrypting codes,” Vlad Georgescu, relationship manager at Artmark, the auction house that sold the machine, tells Judith Vonberg at CNN. While the flea-market vendor thought the machine was a unique typewriter, the mathematician knew exactly what he was buying, and felt “compelled to purchase it.”
He didn’t sell the Enigma right away. Instead, Vonberg reports, he tinkered with the machine, cleaning it, fixing it and figuring out how it works. George Dvorsky at Gizmodo reports that the machine was produced in Berlin by manufacturers Heimsoeth & Rinke in 1941 and that the machine is functional and still in the original wooden box, both rarities.
The Enigma machine is the most storied cryptography device in modern history. Originally developed in the early 1920s, the technology was adopted by the German armed services in the late '20s and early '30s. The machine essentially allowed its operator to scramble messages by setting rotors in a certain position. If the operator on the other end knew the rotor setting, they could decipher the message. If not, the Enigma communications were almost impossible to crack.
But Allied forces did crack the machines. Working with documents obtained by French intelligence, the Polish Cipher Bureau was able to reconstruct a version of Enigma machine, allowing them to decrypt German communiqués by 1933. The Poles passed their work on to the British in 1939 before they were invaded. Once war began, the Enigma machines and codes became more complicated. That’s when mathematician Alan Turing and the codebreakers at Bletchley Park took up the torch, creating systems that could keep up with and break the ever changing Enigma codes. According to Reuters, the Germans were so sure their code could never be broken that they relied on it for all types of communication. It’s believed by some that cracking the Enigma code shortened World War II by two years. Turing's contributions to the war are featured in the Oscar-nominated movie The Imitation Game.
Since the end of the war, the various iterations of the Enigma machines have become collectors items. Dvorsky reports about 20,000 of the machines were produced before and during WWII, but only about 50 are known to remain in museums with an unknown number held by private collectors. The flea-market machine is the more common three rotor Enigma I machine. According to Dvorsky, a rarer Enigma M4, with four rotors, sold for $365,000 in 2015. And just in June Christie’s in New York sold a four-rotor Enigma for a record $547,500.