12 Iconic Items That Failed to Sell at Auctions
Every editorial product is independently selected, though we may be compensated or receive an affiliate commission if you buy something through our links.
Going once, going twice...not gone! From Princess Diana’s dancing dress to a classic Porsche, these historic pieces shockingly didn't get snapped up right away.
Don’t count that money just yet!
It’s exciting when an iconic item heads to an auction house. Not only is it cool to see what’s out there, but everyone starts buzzing about just how much it might fetch. What may be even more fascinating, though, is when it doesn’t sell at all! Check out these historic pieces that somehow failed to pique buyers’ interest. On the flip side, these 13 quirky items sold for millions at auctions.
A letter from Charles Darwin
Letters penned by naturalist Charles Darwin have garnered both big attention and big bucks. In 2015, a letter Darwin wrote addressing the question of whether he believed in the New Testament or not sold for $197,000, three times the price of a previously auctioned letter Darwin wrote to his niece, according to CBSnews.com. In case you were wondering, Darwin’s answer was a big N-O.
Perhaps based on the price of what’s called the “Bible Letter,” another letter Darwin wrote was put up for auction in 2016—but failed to sell. This letter to a marine biologist was penned in 1860, a year after Darwin’s famous book, On the Origin of Species, was published. In the letter that didn’t sell, he writes about plans to revise his famous book as well as shares his admiration for the biologist, according to Live Science. Auctioning one of his books may have been a different story, so to speak. These 15 rare books are worth a fortune.
James Cook’s waistcoat
Would you want to own a 250-year-old waistcoat once worn by the famed explorer Captain James Cook? Buyers at a 2017 auction didn’t—not for the $1.1 million price tag it was being offered for, anyway. After Cook’s death in 1779 (he was stabbed while in Hawaii), the waistcoat was sent back to his family in England, where it stayed until it was sold at auction in 1912, according to Reuters. It was then gifted to an Australian pianist named Ruby Rich, who had the coat altered to fit her. Apparently, Rich wore it to a number of society parties and events, and the coat ended up with wine stains on it. The centuries-old piece did eventually sell, but not for its appraised amount; get anywhere near that amount; it fetched $575,000, which, let’s be honest, isn’t all that shabby for an old coat.
“Grassy knoll” photos
via Mary Ann Moorman/Wikipedia.orgNovember 22, 1963, is a tragic day in American history. On that fateful day in Dallas, Texas, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated as he was driving in a convertible in a motorcade. According to Today, Dallas housewife Mary Ann Moorman went with a friend to see Jackie Kennedy and snapped a Polaroid photo of the motorcade as it drove past. At that exact time, shots rang out, and when the film was developed, it revealed the injured president slumped on his wife. It is allegedly the only photo that shows both the president’s limo and the “grassy knoll” area where many conspiracy theorists have tried to place a gunman.
In 2013, 50 years after John F. Kennedy’s assassination, the photographer (a then-81-year-old Mary Ann Moorman Krahmer) placed the photo up for auction. But it didn’t meet its reserved price, according to Cowan’s Auctions in Cincinnati. Before this auction, Moorman Krahmer had tried to sell it via famed auction house Sotheby’s, but intervention from the Kennedy family influenced the house to decline selling the photo, saying it was “too sensitive to auction.” Don’t miss these 12 still-unanswered questions about the assassination of JFK.
Einstein’s scientific paper
E=mc2. That’s the world’s most famous equation, and an early version of it was jotted down on a 72-page academic paper penned by Albert Einstein. According to the Scientist, the 1912 paper was one of the earliest and biggest papers on relativity created by the famed physicist. Even though some view the paper—which was written in German on unlined paper—as a precursor to his work on relativity (for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize), the paper remained in obscurity until it was auctioned in 1987 through Sotheby’s for $1.2 million. A highlight of the manuscript is the equation “EL=mc2.” Einstein crossed the “L” crossed out, showing the process by which he finally arrived at his most famous legacy.
Sotheby’s attempted to sell the paper again in 1996, but even though bids reached $3.3 million, the anonymous owner refused the offer. The paper did eventually sell for an unnamed amount and was donated to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, also home to the Dead Sea Scrolls. Quiz: Only two percent of people can solve Einstein’s riddle—can you?
A 1939 “Nazi” Porsche
Ferdinand Porsche is one of the most famous car makers the world has known. He designed the classic VW Beetle and later went on to found the luxury car company that bears his name. In 1939, the Nazis were at the helm of power in Germany and commissioned a roadster from Porsche that would compete in a race from Berlin to Rome, according to Bloomberg. But then World War II broke out, the race never happened, and Porsche himself drove the rounded, futuristic car himself.
The sale of the controversial speedster—which some consider the first actual Porsche-style car—was expected to go for $20 million at a Sotheby’s auction last year, but an error left the whole auction in an uproar. To a standing-room-only crowd, the auctioneer opened the bidding at $30 million, when it was supposed to be $13 million. Then, when bidding had reached a frenzied $70 million—which would have made it the most expensive car ever sold—he announced that he’d actually said $17 million. The confusion and chaos apparently turned off the crowd. Some booed; others walked out. Sotheby’s apologized for the snafu and terminated the auction, and at the time of this writing, the car is still for sale. Are you a classic-car expert? Guess these vintage cars.
The world’s first microchip
Andrew Burton/Getty ImagesDubbed “the birth certificate of the modern computing era,” the world’s first computer chip was invented in 1958 by engineer Jack Kilby. He invented the unassuming chip while working at Texas Instruments, and in 2000, he received the Nobel Prize in physics for his work. While at TI, he also worked on teams that developed the pocket calculator and the thermal printer.
Kilby died in 2005, and in 2014, the chip (which is no bigger than a fingernail) was up for auction at Sotheby’s. Bids got up to $850,000, but no one met the reserve price and the auction was stopped. For a device that paved the way for modern cellphones and computers and powers everything from TVs to cars, microwaves, and hearing aids, the chip should be priceless. Check your attic: These 10 retro tech gadgets could be worth a lot of money.
The controversial Beethoven score
Sotheby’s thought it was going score big with a rare music sheet from Beethoven himself. But it seems that a pesky musical historian got in the way. According to the BBC, Professor Barry Cooper, a Beethoven scholar who had a deep familiarity with the composer’s manuscripts, claimed there were inconsistencies within the 1817 piece, Allegretto in B Minor. Cooper’s “hunch” is that it was “copied shortly after it was composed.” While Sotheby’s defended its work, other scholars came out in favor of Cooper, and the score didn’t sell.
A first edition of Hamlet
How much would you pay for a copy of Hamlet that was printed in 1611—while its author, William Shakespeare, was still alive? Christie’s was hoping for up to $2 million, but it was not to be.
The rare copy was in the hands of a private collector, the Viscountess Mary Eccles of New Jersey. The Viscountess was a famed bibliophile and amassed quite the collection of books in the library of her Four Oaks Farm. Her extensive Samuel Johnson collection is currently housed at Harvard University. But this first edition of Hamlet owned by Eccles was the oldest to be privately owned. It was not surprising that Christie’s had such high hopes for it; in 2001, another first-edition Hamlet from the 17th century sold for $3.4 million.
Although Christie’s was able to sell 98 percent of the books and manuscripts from the Viscountess’ estate, Hamlet failed to sell. We think it madness, but maybe there was a method to it? Next, check out these 21 everyday phrases you’d never believe were invented by Shakespeare.
The dress Princess Diana wore when she danced with John Travolta
Tim Graham/Getty ImagesIn 1985, the 24-year-old Princess of Wales paid a state visit to the White House with her husband, Prince Charles. She had specially requested the presence of superstar John Travolta, and according to Biography, First Lady Nancy Reagan suggested to Travolta that he ask the shy princess to dance. History was made when she said yes, and a photo of them dancing (as everyone looked on) remains an iconic White House moment. A picture of that special moment even hangs in the White House’s East Wing.
The dress that Diana was wearing—an off-the-shoulder Victor Edelstein blue velvet evening gown—was up for auction in December 2019, and somehow didn’t sell. According to People, experts thought the gown would sell somewhere between $330,000 and $450,000, but it didn’t even receive the reserve price of $265,000. That said, the dress did eventually sell post-auction to an unnamed British institution for about $290,000. Regardless of the dress debacle, John Travolta called his time dancing with Princess Diana of the highlights of his life. Here are 9 secrets about Princess Diana no one knew about until after her death.
The Macdonald Stradivarius
Would you pay $45 million for a viola? Do you know what a viola is? Apparently, it’s a larger, lower-pitched second cousin to the violin and not totally revered. Case in point: In 2014, Sotheby’s tried to sell a rare Stradivarius, made by the famed Italian music instrument makers. According to CNBC, “The Macdonald” was crafted by Antonio Stradivari in 1719, during the master’s “golden period,” and is one of only two Strad violas still in private hands. It was named for the 3rd Baron Macdonald, Godfrey Bosville, who acquired it in the 1820s. Despite its illustrious pedigree, the viola failed to sell. Maybe that’s why we never hear of them?
Exhumed out of the Montana Badlands, this pair of intertwined dinosaurs—a new ceratopsian herbivore and a tyrannosaurus-like predator—was a rare find. According to Live Science, experts believe that the dinosaurs were fighting when a landslide entombed them. In fact, they are so well preserved, they still have some skin on them. Bonhams auction house, which oversaw the auction of the “Dueling Dinosaurs,” estimated the fossils would sell for between $7 to $9 million. However, the highest bid topped out at $5.5 million, and the old bones look like they’re old news. Have you ever wondered what would happen if dinosaurs were still alive? We have!
JFK’s childhood sailboat
Courtesy Heritage Auctions, HA.comPhotos of the Kennedy clan, tanned and sailing, seemed to symbolize the rugged spirit of America. So it was a big surprise when the Star Class sailboat named Flash II failed to sell at auction. According to the Charlotte Observer, “the 22-foot-long sailboat was owned and raced by the future president and his older brother, Joseph P. Kennedy, from 1934 to 1940.” The owner boasted that the boat had been restored and was sea-ready, but it failed to launch when bids didn’t meet the seller’s minimum price of $100,000. Now for something you don’t have to spend a penny on: 15 rarely seen photos of JFK and Jackie Kennedy.