Christie's, the London auction house which handled the sale, is now trying to sell the calculator to the underbidder, a German mathematics institute. But the institute has been authorised to pay no more than pounds 200,000, and the auction house is facing an embarrassing and expensive climbdown.
The gilt and lacquered brass calculator, made between 1820 and 1822 by the German craftsman Johann Christoph Schuster, hit the headlines when it was sold in May. Leading dealers and auctioneers said the deal would transform the market for scientific instruments.
The purchaser, a Zurich-based instrument dealer named Edgar Mannheimer, joined in the bidding by telephone when the price reached pounds 25,000, pounds 5,000 above the value estimated in Christie's catalogue.
In a three-minute duel with a mystery bidder in the saleroom, the price shot up to an extraordinary pounds 7,701,500.
Speculation about the purchaser's identity focussed on Bill Gates, the 37-year-old American behind the computer software firm Microsoft and a well-known gadget collector. But Mr Mannheimer would not say and it now appears that Mr Gates was never involved.
Christie's gave the dealer 35 days to come up with the money, as is normal practice. A week ago his time was up. Speaking from his Zurich home on Friday, Mr Mannheimer said: 'I have not paid for it yet and I will not be paying.'
Christie's has since approached the underbidder, the Forschungesinstitut fur Diskrete Mathematik, a Bonn-based mathematics research centre headed by Professor Bernhard Korte who came to London and bid in person.
But Dr Korte, who has been given a grant by the German equivalent of the National Trust and the North Rhine-Westphalia government to set up a mathematics museum, is only allowed to pay pounds 200,000 for the piece.
There has been speculation in the scientific instrument world about the motives of Mr Mannheimer, who is extremely ill and has spent much of the last month in hospital. A close associate of Dr Korte said it was an unique set of circumstances 'which might one day form the basis of a good novel'.
Christie's declined to comment on the situation or on its talks with the German institute saying that these were confidential between buyer and seller.
John Baddeley, resident expert at Sotheby's, said at the time of the auction that the calculator sale had completely changed the market. 'If it was a Renaissance instrument designed and made by Michelangelo then maybe, but only very serious works of art make this kind of price. This has broken all the records.
'It is rather like a picture coming up for sale and going for pounds 500m.'
(Photograph omitted)Reuse content