The Anatomy of the Atari Auction

The last week has been pretty exciting for people who have followed the excavation of an assemblage of E.T. Games from the Alamogordo landfill last spring. I participated in the project as one of the archaeological observers and was charmed by the participants and the community. 

This past week saw the start of the auction of 100 of the excavated Atari games. My colleagues and I have expressed some reservations about selling excavated materials. In general, I think it’s a bad idea, but I’ll concede that it is not a cut-and-dry as these objects may well have cultural value only through their association with media-feuled “fake archaeology.”

Last Friday, things got exciting when bit-by-bit the auction of games began to disappear from Ebay. My colleagues and I watched the number of games slowly decrease from 100 to only 19 over an hour. We speculated wildly about the cause. Perhaps Ebay had thought better about selling objects that had been in a municipal landfill for three decades. Perhaps there was dissent among the sellers of the games which would benefit the city of Alamogordo and the local historical society. There had been an election after all! Perhaps the rapidly increasing prices at the auction seemed suspicious with E.T. game in box topping out at over $700.

It ended up being just a procedural issue on the part of Ebay as the seller had updated the images associated with a few of the games, but our fascination and almost giddy panic encapsulated something fundamental about the entire undertaking. The “mystery” surrounding the games themselves a combination of corporate efforts to obfuscate the fate of returned or damaged games, the lack problematic state of Atari corporate records, and the good fiscal decision to bury the games in an economical way. In other words, the mystery surrounding these games and their fate was not a traditional archaeological mystery, but a “fake mystery” fueled by internet debates and lack of access or interest in tracking down documentary records or first-hand accounts which could have set the record straight.       So cynics can celebrate how a fake archaeological project solved a fake mystery.

My eBay Watch list

The media coverage of the auction itself has been bizarre as well. As the games continue to increase in value, with a boxed E.T. game up to $850 at present, Joe Lewandowski, the name behind the historical society’s auction continues to equivocate over the games’ value. He reminds the press that another 750 games will go up for auction after this lot is sold, and that the hundreds of thousands of games still in the landfill would be cost-prohibitive to excavate.

The math is baffling: the current auction has already raised close to $15,000 from 100 games (approximately $150 per game), and the prices will almost certain increase quickly as the auction nears its closing date. If the 750 additional games perform similarly, the auction should raise over $100,000. Even if the next auction does not receive the same bidding and excitement, the reserves on the first round of games were at least $50, so the auction should raise over $40,000 if all the games sell. So, it’s unclear what the city’s strategy is: are they telling bidders to hold on until the 750 new games appear in subsequent auctions? Are they cautioning bidders that the several hundred thousand (and perhaps million games) left underground will sit there to insure the value of their investment? The message is, at best, mixed, and, at worst, disconcerting.

Archaeology of the modern period is tricky because the processes that serve to occlude archaeological objects (whether fake or otherwise) from our site continued to function. The complexities of value, the market, and – to be exceedingly simplistic – modern waste disposal obfuscate the forces that shape artifact histories even as archaeologists work to scrutinize both the objects and processes themselves. Depending on your position, this works to undermine the viability of archaeology in the contemporary world because it makes true critical distancing from the objects under study impossible. Or, it provides a good reason for us to continue to attempt to use archaeology to unpack the workings of objects in our world.   

In the meantime, the auction will go on and people will bid on games. I have. My current plan is to put together a nice little collection of games and gift them to the St. Louis chapter of the Archaeological Institute of America on the condition that they never sell them. Maybe I’m kidding.

One Comment

  1. If your last sentence was intended to reflect the Detroit Institute of Art furor you may be interested to know that my son Arthur led the team that saved it. He was lead attorney for the DIA and made the opening remarks. When the creditors realized that they’d not get their hands on the art they settled out of court. That was the substantive end of the trial as Detroit had nothing much else of value.


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