A rare Enigma encryption machine used by the Nazis to communicate without interception and translation by opposing nations fetched $106,250 at auction Saturday.
The buyer’s identity was not immediately revealed. The seller, who wishes to remain anonymous because of “security concerns,” is a lifelong collector of Americana and World War II artifacts who lives in Los Angeles, according to Heritage Auctions, who conducted the sale. The machine was sold in conjunction with the Historic Flags of World War II auction in Dallas.
The Enigma was used from 1934 until the end of World War II, but fewer than 250 are believed to still exist, Heritage said.
Many were destroyed by the Germans to prevent them from falling into the wrong hands. Winston Churchill ordered all others to be destroyed after the war. Many were also lost at sea.
The three-cipher rotor design, referred to as M3, was thought to have only one flaw beyond human error: the fact that the machine could scramble the letters into any of 17,576 combinations except the use of the original letter.
“But it was human error, including but not limited to the fact that many users of the machine signed off at the end of their communications with ‘Heil Hitler,’ a pattern that eventually became a step in the Allies’ process of breaking the coded communications,” according to the Heritage website.
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The metal wheels on this Enigma bear the engraving of the Third Reich emblem — a black eagle above a swastika. The interior of the wooden lid features operating instructions in German, above the “QWERTZUIO” mechanical keyboard which would light up when in operation. Twenty-six bulbs exist on the lamp board, with one broken. The socket locations are marked “Kabelprufung” (cable test) and “Lampenprufung” (lamp test). The original battery is still in place, with expected corrosion. Part of the leather strap is also present, but no longer secured to the wooden case.
“Enigma machines were critical tools for the Germans, and were believed to have provided an essentially ‘unbreakable’ code through which German forces could communicate,” Heritage Auctions Americana Director Tom Slater said. “Not only are they historically very significant, but the fact that both the Nazis and Churchill wanted them destroyed makes the remaining examples like this one very hard to come by, and drives the massive demand.”
The machines went through evolution of several designs in an effort to stay ahead of code-cracking attempts.
UK mathematician which-turned-World War II hero Alan Turing was tasked with breaking the German military codes, which was brought to life in the 2014 blockbuster movie “The Imitation Game.”