Sealed iPhones setting sales records, but not all are as advertised

cllct investigation reveals multiple sealed iPhones sold at auction were not authentic

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As Steve Jobs and Apple collectibles have become a hot market, original sealed iPhones have taken off. (Credit: Getty Images)

The rise of the sealed iPhone as a collectible has been one of the splashiest trends in collecting over the past few years, thanks to multiple six-figure sales and mainstream media coverage.

It also has been one of the most controversial, in large part due to the opaque nature of guaranteeing authenticity. Buyers have generally taken the word of auction houses the product is as advertised, sealed as it came from the factory.

But, as cllct has uncovered, multiple sales involved iPhones that were likely resealed and made to look brand new, fooling auction houses that failed to verify easy points of reference before placing items up for bid.

During the course of cllct's investigation, Goldin Auctions removed a 4GB iPhone from its Pop Culture Elite Auction on Wednesday after a basic check of the iPhone's serial number revealed it had been activated and was not as advertised.

“This is a new collectible," Goldin Auctions founder and CEO Ken Goldin told cllct. "Goldin uses third-party experts wherever possible to authenticate everything we sell. And if it is brought to our attention that those third-party experts are not qualified to authenticate the item in question, we will stop using them."

"They are amazing investments, if they are real"

It makes sense bad actors would have entered the space considering the mania surrounding the collectible.

Beginning in 2021, sales of sealed original 2007 iPhones began notching noteworthy sums on eBay, averaging $8,848.89 across nine sales.

In 2022, two major auction houses offered 8GB examples, bringing the burgeoning collectible into the mainstream for the first time. RR Auctions sold a sealed iPhone for $35,414 in August 2022, establishing a new record. Then, LCG Auctions followed with a record of its own ($39,339 in October 2022).

The floodgates opened, with LCG selling another example for $63,356.40 in February 2023, then Goldin in March 2023 for $43,320 and RR a week later for $54,904.

This fed into the already-hot market for Apple and Steve Jobs memorabilia, which has long been coveted by collectors who believe in the power of Apple's cultural ubiquity.

"I think they are amazing investments, if they are real," industry-renowned pop culture appraiser Simeon Lipman said.

Jeremy Padawer, an entrepreneur and toy-industry executive, felt the same way when he purchased his sealed iPhone in 2021 for $6,500 on eBay. The investment fit perfectly into Padawer's broader strategy of collectibles, which centers around fandom.

"Something happens when a brand is about 20 years old, and the original people that were playing with it are now in their late 30s," Padawer said. "Access to capital and the ability to spend and invest just really changes."

With Apple becoming one of the world's largest companies, the iPhone appealed to Padawer as the prototypical "accidental collectible." After some research, he came to his conclusion: "Man, that original iPhone is going to be one of the most valuable collectibles, if it's rare, in a sealed condition."

The 2007 launch of the iPhone revolutionized the tech world. (Credit: Getty Images)
The 2007 launch of the iPhone revolutionized the tech world. (Credit: Getty Images)

Marquees Brownlee, the largest tech reviewer on YouTube, posted a video titled "I Spent $40,000 to Unbox a Sealed Original iPhone" in April 2023. In the video, Brownlee notes he has seen instances of fraud in the market involving resealed iPhones. The video has garnered 8.39 million views at the time of writing.

All of these sales, with the exception of an early eBay listing, consisted of 8GB productions. In the world of iPhone collecting, the 4GB reigns supreme, as it was only available for a few months after launch before is discontinuation.

To date, cllct has tracked around five times as many public sales of 8GB iPhones than 4GB examples.

The value of the rare 4GB variant caught the attention of most collectors after the world record $190,373 sale at LCG in July 2023. This particular iPhone enjoyed the most air-tight provenance possible, having been consigned by a member of Apple’s original engineering team from the iPhone's first launch.

But this surge was soon followed by a steep decline in sales prices as an influx of supply entered the market going into 2024.

During the unprecedented 27 public sales of sealed iPhones in 2023, the average sale price was $49,586.26. While we are on pace to see a similar number of sales this year, the average price has been cut in half.

The 8GB witnessed a steep drop in value, declining from a run that included four sales of at least $50,000 in the spring and summer of 2023 to below $30,000 to start 2024 (and then even lower) — basically flat from two years prior.

The 4GB held up better, likely due to its rarity. One example cleared $130,000 at LCG in March 2024 and has dipped slightly, though nowhere near the magnitude of its more common twin. In total, sales of sealed first-generation iPhones (either variant), are about on track to reach the 2021 sales numbers.

But throughout the ups and downs of the highly-speculative market, many raised concerns over the authenticity of the iPhones, whether or not collectors could trust auction houses to ensure the boxes are, in fact, factory sealed and containing the contents described.

The question of authenticity

As with many speculative markets, the sealed iPhone world is truly the Wild West — especially when it comes to authentication.

Due to the lack of information provided by Apple and absence of true expertise in the young market, collectors and auction houses rely upon multiple piecemeal strategies to cobble together what amounts to a best guess of an iPhone’s genuine seal and original production.

After speaking with various collectors, auction houses and experts across collectible categories, it became clear the most thorough in the industry rely on a careful examination of each seal — not simply for its condition, but also its shape — as well as provenance, serial numbers and IMEI codes (which can be used to check the activation status of an iPhone — if it’s active, that’s a red flag) and more.

Padawer's investment was based on his own research, a high feedback rating for the seller on eBay and a close examination of photos, which he used to compare to images of the original iPhone during its release.

A high-level Apple employee confirmed to cllct that an iPhone that is found to be registered as active (or has an expired warranty) is evidence the phone had been removed from the box, meaning the seal is fake.

Additionally, the employee said no sealed iPhone should exhibit a seam on its top, as this would have been against the aesthetic brand of Apple and Steve Jobs.

The iPhone's serial number can be verified using this website. After inputting the serial number (found on the back of the box), the website checks whether the iPhone is activated or has an expired warranty.

Despite his research, Padawer had never heard of the serial-number check prior to our conversation and reported later that evening his iPhone was not activated, meaning there was no immediate evidence it had been resealed.

However, a review of the historical sales data shows instances of auction houses listing iPhones they claim to be sealed, yet fail one or more of these tests.

When reporting for this story began in March, Goldin had an iPhone listed in its Elite Auction that did not pass the IMEI or serial number checks. When cllct reached out for comment, the auction house removed the item from the auction.

In a phone call that same day, a Goldin representative said the company now required all sealed iPhones to be authenticated by Collector Archive Services (CAS), a third-party authenticator of collectible toys, video games, trading card packs and other memorabilia founded in 2016.

Repeated attempts to contact CAS to discuss its methodology were not returned.

In March 2024, after Goldin had already sold around seven iPhones, a company representative told cllct they had recently learned about the IMEI and serial-number checks. Goldin also said it used X-Rays among other precautions in the verification process.

Past listings of iPhones at Goldin failed multiple tests as well, including an $87,840 sale of a 4GB iPhone in October 2023, which returned “Coverage Expired” when inputting the serial number into the Apple site and also appears to have a suspect seal, with a seam running along the top of the box.

Despite apparently learning of the IMEI and serial-number checks in March, Goldin listed a 4GB iPhone in its Elite Auction in May 2024, which a simple check of its serial number shows as “activated.” Though encapsulated by CAS, whose methodology remains unknown, this check was either missed or ignored.

When informed by cllct the iPhone had been activated, Goldin took swift action and removed the lot from its auction Wednesday.

"If an iPhone was sold previously, and the sale was completed, and it's confirmed that it could not possibly be authentic, we will contact the winning bidder and tell them we need the item back and refund their money as we've done over the past 13 years on those rare occasions," Goldin said.

Although CAS did not respond to requests to discuss its grading methods, the company does use QR codes on the side of the encapsulated iPhone. When scanned, the 4GB example — graded CAS 80/82.2 — directs to a landing page hosted on the CAS site. The page displays a copy of the information shown on the case, in addition to “subseries: sealed iPhone"). The page also shows the iPhone was graded in April 2024, a month before Goldin listed it in its Elite Auction.

LCG, which is the most successful auction house in the category, having jumped on the trend early and secured the top sale of all time, told cllct it has utilized online verification checks of serial numbers and IMEI codes for all its iPhones, and places a particular importance on provenance.

“I think it's similar to video games and the VHS tapes in terms of how their seal is unique. And if you handle enough, or if you see enough, you see they're all very similar," LCG founder Mark Montero said. "And if you come across one that's different, you'd look into that. Nearly every one that we've sold, came from a reliable source, either had the receipt, or, you know, we had the story behind it.”

This is echoed by Lipman, who says smart collectors should always seek out pieces with the greatest provenance, particularly given the tenuous third-party authentication options.

RR Auctions, which has planted its flag as the premier spot for all-things Apple related in recent years, has also made sealed iPhones a mainstay of its recent auctions.

RR’s executive Vice President Bobby Eaton explained the great lengths he and his team go to in order to feel comfortable listing an iPhone at RR. “I don't trust provenance unless it's coming straight from like an Apple person. And even then, I do both searches,” he said, referring to the IMEI and serial-number searches.

He even takes things further. “I’ve weighed every single one that I've gotten. I know the weights of the fours and eights.”

One of the added risks of the market is the looming possibility of a “find.”

“I don't know, man, maybe there's like, like, 100,000 in Shenzen right now, just like in a corner,” said Kevin Lenane, VP of Sales of PSA and owner of one of the largest collections of vintage Apple computers in the world.

This is a widespread fear among collectors interested in the market but weary of its nascent status. Though the “big one” has yet to come, the trend of sales indicates a far greater supply than many would have thought back in 2021 and 2022, which saw about a dozen sales combined.

"We're not talking about something that's 50 years old where its had all this time to turn up, these are things that are 20 years old, so that's always a distinct possibility," Lipman said, referencing a possible large find that could create a supply shock.

Of course, 2023’s explosion of availability on the auction block was an indicator of the possibility the collectibles are more common than anyone believed.

Will Stern is a reporter and editor for cllct.