`Relics' from the Space Age


Auction: Scores of artifacts from the golden age of manned space flight will go on sale tomorrow, with some expected to fetch prices that are out of this world.

April 11, 2003|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

With the right stuff, and a bid that could top $200,000, you can own 16 pages of dusty data cards that helped Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin land on the moon almost 34 years ago.

The dust? It's moon dust.

If that's too pricey, a bid of $8,000 might get you a spoon and a blue plastic toothbrush - attractively mounted on a block of wood - that Apollo 10 astronaut Eugene A. Cernan used while orbiting the moon in 1969.

These artifacts from the golden age of manned space flight and more than 400 others, many of them consigned by astronauts, are being sold at auction at 1 p.m. tomorrow at Swann Galleries in New York. Online bidding began Monday.

The sale catalog includes everything from NASA glossies signed by astronauts to Cernan's "overglove," worn on the moon in 1972 and still filthy with moon dust. (Swann's estimate: $200,000 to $300,000.)

It is the first venture into space memorabilia for Swann Galleries, an old New York auction house better known for sales of rare books and manuscripts.

"In 50 years' time, people will be amazed that things like these would be on the market," says Richard C. Austin, a consultant to Swann who organized this sale and two previous space memorabilia sales at Christie's.

Steve Hankow, who operates farthestreaches.com, a Web site for space collectors, says the featured items in the Swann auction "would knock anybody's socks off."

"That's important stuff by anybody's standard," he says. "Those are museum pieces."

Earlier auctions

But Swann's is only the latest important sale for a growing number of collectors who see value in "relics" of a Space Age not yet 50 years old.

Sotheby's held two sales in the 1980s, Austin said. After that, prices climbed, driven by nostalgia, the dot-com stock bubble and movies such as Apollo 13.

When Christie's held its first auction in 1999, "it raised the bar," says Robert Z. Pearlman, editor of collectspace.com, another online sales and meeting place for collectors.

"Prices realized at that auction differed from what [similar objects] had gotten earlier by a factor of 10," he says. Patches removed from Jim Irwin's moon suit, and covered in moon dust, sold for $310,000. Two years later, his widow sold another set for $358,000.

A clear hierarchy of desirability has emerged from the sales, Pearlman says. "Items flown to the surface of the moon are most in demand, with items flown to the orbit of the moon quick behind them," he says.

Next in line are "flown" objects from the earlier Mercury, Gemini and Apollo spacecraft. Swann is offering scores of flight patches, "cacheted" and autographed postal envelopes flown as keepsakes and gifts.

But actual flight hardware is more valuable. The Swann catalog includes a bit of heat shield from the Gemini 8 capsule ($1,500 to $2,000) and an Apollo 17 star chart used on the moon by Cernan in 1972 ($25,000 to $35,000).

Space shuttle items are deemed too humdrum by some.

Cosmonaut's application

Swann will also sell about 40 objects from the Soviet Union's early space program, including Valentina Tereshkova's application to be a cosmonaut ($5,000 to $7,000). In 1963, she became the first woman in space.

More such items have become available as cosmonauts have sold possessions to raise cash. But collectors are more leery because Soviet material is more difficult to authenticate.

"What really dictates value almost more than the item itself is having a solid provenance to show what someone said it actually did," Pearlman says. Without it, "it might as well not have flown."

A lunar navigational map used by astronaut Charles Duke is being sold with a signed letter stating, "This map accompanied the Apollo 16 astronauts aboard their lunar rover as they explored the Descartes Highlands of the moon."

The Swann catalog calls it "one of the rarest maps in the history of both cartography and human exploration" ($80,000 to $120,000).

There's also a signed 1972 Playboy centerfold, flown to the moon aboard Apollo 17 after Cernan's backup crew hid it in his flight plans before liftoff ($40,000 to $60,000).

Putting values on such rarities, however, is tricky.

Austin says Swann's price estimates are based on past sales. The dusty glove Cernan used to pick up moon rocks carries an estimate of $200,000 to $300,000, based in part on the $160,000 paid a few years ago for Neil Armstrong's backup suit, which never left Earth.

But collectors say past sales are risky guides. "It remains to be seen if people will be willing to spend that kind of money," Hankow says. "The price of this stuff goes up and down with the economy and things that happen in the world."

Pearlman, 27, has filled his home with more than 200 space relics - not for profit, but out of a "passion" for the era he was born too late to witness.

"Space memorabilia makes a horrible investment idea," Pearlman says. "If you're collecting for investment reasons, you're going to lose your shirt."

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