Moon Memorabilia Fetches Astronomical Prices from Collectors

 

BOSTON – When Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon in July 1969, the grainy image of his hop from the bottom step of the Eagle to the lunar soil was watched by an estimated 600 million people – roughly 1 in 6 people alive at the time.

When Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and 10 other American astronauts who set foot on the Moon between 1969 and 1972 returned to Earth, they became instant celebrities – hailed as heroes with “the right stuff” who had won the space race against the Soviets.

The Apollo astronauts also brought back Moon rocks and other souvenirs of their historic journeys. With Friday marking the 46th anniversary of Apollo 11’s return to Earth, those flags, patches, envelopes, coins, straps, schematics and other artifacts and mementos from NASA missions now fetch astronomical prices at auction.

“Right now, space is the most popular collectible,” said Bob Eaton, CEO of RR Auction in Boston.

‘The Holy Grail’

Robert Pearlman, founder and editor of CollectSpace.com, said Baby Boomers are especially passionate about mementos from the Moon missions.

“A large part of it is nostalgia. They were children or teenagers and remember watching it live,” he said. “There’s a sense of history.”

Pearlman added: “The holy grail of all this is items that were taken to the Moon. So, if you were in a pecking order, things that flew the Moon are on that top level. Now and then, you get even more distinguished by the fact of, ‘Well, did it go to the Moon and just orbit the Moon? Or did it go to the Moon and land on the Moon? And if it landed on the Moon, was it taken out of the lunar lander?’”

Most prized of all are artifacts tinged with Moon dust, far more valuable than gold dust among collectors. It’s illegal for individuals to own Moon rocks.

A checklist worn on the cuff of astronaut Pete Conrad’s space suit on the lunar surface – every page tinged by lunar dust – was rumored to have sold privately for $2 million, Pearlman said.

Astronaut Dave Scott’s cuff checklist, worn as he drove the lunar rover on Apollo 15’s moon mission, sold for almost $400,000; and a hand rotation control to land the lunar module sold for close to $600,000, Eaton said.

A New Law

Until recently, who can own – and sell – moon mementos has been up in the air.

In 2011, when astronaut Ed Mitchell put the NASA camera he used on Apollo 14 up for auction, the space agency stepped in to stop the sale. Mitchell agreed to donate the camera to the Smithsonian if NASA paid his legal fees.

Apollo astronauts pushed back, saying there had been an informal agreement with NASA allowing them to hang onto their space souvenirs. In 2012, President Obama quietly signed a law allowing the Apollo astronauts who risked their lives during the space race to keep – and cash in on – what they brought home.

The law doesn’t cover astronauts who flew aboard the shuttle or other later missions.

Clayton Anderson, who flew on the shuttle Atlantis and spent more than five months in the International Space Station in a joint mission with the Russians, asked NASA if he could keep the gloves to his Russian space suit.

“They were custom-made for my hand, and they have my initials sewn in Russian on the sleeve of the glove,” said Anderson, author of “The Ordinary Spaceman.”

He was denied. Anderson, who has since retired, would contact the Russians.

“I was told by a reliable source that if I came up with $10,000 they’d make sure my suit, my whole suit, would end up on my front porch,” he said.

‘A Quick Dollar’

Anthony Pizzitola may be the world’s foremost collector of Neil Armstrong’s autograph, which is worth about $4,500 on the astronaut’s official NASA portrait. He’s also an expert on bogus Armstrong signatures.

“Forgeries are around because it’s a quick dollar,” he said.

As a member of the Universal Autograph Collectors Club, Pizzitola will check the authenticity of signatures for free. He said he’s shattered the illusions of many a collector who thought they got a great deal on a genuine Armstrong autograph.

One tip-off: On his official portrait, Armstrong never signed over the flag of his space suit, he says.

Lunar Bibles

One especially lucrative stash of moon loot has landed in court: lunar Bibles printed on microfilm.

“They were a collection of reproduced Bibles for the Apollo Prayer League, a group of people in and around Houston, who wanted to express their support for the space program through their faith,” Pearlman said.

John Stout, a NASA chaplain, headed the Apollo Prayer League. He’s now in his 90s and living in a nursing home east of Houston. He was deemed a ward of the state after he gave away some land to his hometown, and now the state of Texas is suing for the return of 14 lunar Bibles to help pay for his care.

Author Carol Mersch, who befriended Stout while writing the book “Apostles of Apollo,” said Stout gave her the lunar Bibles – four as gifts and 10 to place in museums, according to court records. The two sides are now in mediation.

Secret Swag

In preflight quarantine awaiting the historic launch of Apollo 11, astronauts Armstrong, Aldrin and Michael Collins decided to leave behind an insurance policy of sorts in case they didn’t make it back, according to CollectSpace.com.

They signed commemorative envelopes their families could sell. Dubbed “insurance covers” by collectors, some have sold for more than $10,000 at auction.

Even before they blasted off for the moon, these Apollo astronauts realized the potential value of moon mementos.

 

Reprinted with permission from Al Jazeera

 

 

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