What Price Can a Typewriter Fetch at Auction?

Christie's auction house figured that the Olivetti Lettera 32 manual typewriter used for nearly 50 years by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Cormac McCarthy would bring in between $15,000 and $20,000 at its 2009 auction in New York City.

American author Cormac McCarthy used the same Olivetti typewriter (similar to this one) for 46 years; it was auctioned for over $254,500 in 2009.
American author Cormac McCarthy used the same Olivetti typewriter (similar to this one) for 46 years; it was auctioned for over $254,500 in 2009.

The author of books such as The Road and Blood Meridian bought the portable machine from a Tennessee pawn shop for $50 in 1963. McCarthy figured he’d written 5 million or so words on it over the years. “I tried to find the smallest, lightest typewriter I could find,” he explained.

This story has a surprise ending, however: The typewriter was sold to an anonymous American collector for a staggering $254,500 – far exceeding Christie's estimates and obliterating the $2,750 figure that one of Hemingway's Royal typewriters fetched two years earlier. As he had promised to do before the unexpected auction results, McCarthy donated the proceeds to the Santa Fe Institute, an independent, non-profit think tank devoted to theoretical scientific research.

A line of type:

  • Marcello Nizzoli designed the Lettera line of typewriters. “Nizzoli basically changed the shape of typewriters by taking a technological innovation from the auto industry – press-forming steel – and applying it to typewriters,” said rare-book dealer Glenn Horowitz.

  • Olivettis have been cherished by other famous writers, including poet Sylvia Plath, playwright James Purdy, novelists John Updike and Thomas Pynchon, and newspaper columnist Ann Landers.

  • McCarthy, born Charles Joseph McCarthy Jr. in 1933, is the author of 10 novels, two plays, and two screenplays. He changed his name to Cormac, in part, so that he wouldn’t be confused with Charlie McCarthy, the dummy of ventriloquist Edgar Bergen.

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    • American author Cormac McCarthy used the same Olivetti typewriter (similar to this one) for 46 years; it was auctioned for over $254,500 in 2009.
      American author Cormac McCarthy used the same Olivetti typewriter (similar to this one) for 46 years; it was auctioned for over $254,500 in 2009.