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German Enigma Machine Found at Flea Market Fetches $51,000 at Auction

The Enigma 1 that sold at auction. (Image: Artmark)
The Enigma 1 that sold at auction. (Image: Artmark)

A professor of cryptology has auctioned off a rare and fully-functional Enigma machine used by the Nazis to encrypt messages during the Second World War. Incredibly, the collector found the machine at a flea market in Bucharest—which suggests Romania may house other machines still waiting to be discovered.


As reported in Deutsche Welle, the unnamed collector knew what he had stumbled upon at the flea market, and cooly snatched it up for 100 euros ($115). He then put it up for sale at the city’s Artmark auction house with a starting bid of 9,000 euros ($10,265). On Tuesday, the rare cryptographic machine sold to an unnamed online bidder for 45,000 euros ($51,620). A very healthy return on investment, to be sure.

Image: Artmark
Image: Artmark

Enigma machines were invented by the Germans in the 1930s and were used by its armed forces to transmit encrypted messages during the Second World War. Romania was allied to Nazi Germany at the time, so it makes sense that the unit was found in the Balkan country. Famously, the breaking of the Enigma system by computer scientist Alan Turing at Bletchley park (with prior help from Polish spies and scientists) contributed to the defeat of Nazi Germany in WWII.

The unit which sold on Tuesday is in pristine condition and it’s still useable. An Enigma 1, it was produced in Berlin by Heimsoeth & Rinke in 1941, and it’s still in the original wooden box.

Around 20,000 Enigma machines of various types were manufactured in the 1930s and 1940s, but only a handful have survived. Around 50 Enigma machines of various sorts are currently on display at museums around the world, with many more in the hands of private collectors.

In 2015, an even rarer Enigma M4 machine sold at auction for a record $365,000. The M4, named for its four rotors (the Enigma 1 has three rotors), was manufactured during the latter stages of the war. Only 150 remain from the 1,500 ever built.


[Deutsche Welle]

George is a senior staff reporter at Gizmodo.

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“Enigma machines were invented by the Germans in the 1930s...”

Not quite. The Enigma machine was invented by German engineer Arthur Scherbius (1878 – 1929) and patented in 1918. He tried to interest the German military but failed, so he formed a company and marketed it to commercial interests. The German navy adopted the machine in 1926, and the army followed in 1928. The military versions were similar to the commercial machines, but added a “plugboard” to greatly increase the number of possible permutations.

Efforts to break the Enigma began in England as early as 1927. Polish mathematician Marian Rejewski and his colleagues found and exploited weaknesses in the design and use of Enigma, and in 1938 conceived of the cryptologic bombe, a mechanical aid to breaking the cypher, and built a prototype. A copy of the bombe as well as details they had learned were provided to the British as war loomed in Europe in 1939. British mathematicians Alan Turning and Gordon Welchman used this information to make a more versatile version of the bombe, which made it possible for them to break Enigma in near real time.

Welchman later said:

[The British codebreaking effort] would never have gotten off the ground if we had not learned from the Poles, in the nick of time, the details both of the German military version of the commercial Enigma machine, and of the operating procedures that were in use.

The National Cryptologic Museum in Fort Meade MD has an Enigma machine on open display. You can set the rotors, encode and decode messages on it. For crypto wonks this exhibit alone makes it worth the trip.