Not-so-stellar interest greets space auction

Astronaut memorabilia draws mostly weak prices

April 14, 2003|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

Bidders at a weekend auction of space memorabilia in New York astonished collectors by driving up the price of a photograph of astronaut Buzz Aldrin walking on the moon to $34,000. The photo was signed by all three Apollo 11 astronauts.

"An absolutely astonishing figure," said Robert Z. Pearlman, editor of collectspace.com, a Web site for collectors. The bidding started at $2,000.

A book of data cards used by Aldrin and Neil Armstrong to guide them to the first moon landing in 1969 sold for $200,000.

But the Saturday auction failed to fill more than 30 of the 100 or so seats set up for the sale at Swann Galleries in New York City. And more than a third of the 408 items up for sale either did not attract the minimum bids set for them, or got no interest at all.

The unofficial tally after the sale came to just $641,180, according to Pearlman. Although the Swann auctioneer reportedly pronounced the results "stellar," Pearlman found them "sort of disappointing."

Had everything sold for at least their minimum prices, he said, the sale would have grossed more than $2 million. Swann officials could not be reached yesterday for comment.

Among the unsold items was a space suit glove, covered with moon dust, used by Gene Cernan on the Apollo 17 mission in 1972. Bidding opened at $100,000, but petered out before reaching the unstated minimum set by the auction house. Swann had estimated the glove would bring at least $200,000.

"Of all the items that did not reach the minimum bid, I thought that was to be one of the surer sales," said Pearlman.

The small turnout for Swann's first space memorabilia sale was certainly a factor, he said. Live bids were also taken by telephone, but Swann's online bidders had no opportunity to participate live, as has been the case at sales at other auction houses.

Nevertheless, collectors seemed happy with the price trends. "For a first space auction from this company, during a recession, during a war, a couple of days before taxes are due, without Internet bidding ... I find these to be quite impressive prices," said Noah Bradley, a collector in Madison, Va., posting in collectspace.com's chat room.

Among the 10 sales that topped $10,000:

$26,000 for an American flag flown aboard Apollo 11, the first moon-landing in 1969.

$22,000 for a navigational chart flown on Apollo 11.

$14,000 for a flight plan flown to the moon aboard Apollo 11.

$10,000 for a cloth patch flown to the moon on Apollo 12.

But the auction was "a lesson of real contrasts and contradictions," Pearlman said.

The highest price for an item from the Soviet Union's manned space program was $9,500 paid for records from the flight of the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin.

Yet the application of Valentina Tereshkova to become a cosmonaut failed to sell. Tereshkova was the first woman to fly in space. The papers were expected to bring at least $5,000.

Items linked to astronauts John Glenn and Scott Carpenter were hot; those signed by Wally Shirra and Gordon Cooper were not.

Books about space exploration, many signed by astronauts, sold for as little as $60 - if they sold at all. Yet American flags flown aboard the Faith 7 Mercury capsule and Gemini 6 each sold for $6,500.

Among the 150 space relics that failed to sell was a navigation map used by Apollo 16 astronaut Charles Duke during his exploration of the lunar surface. A rarity for collectors of both maps and space memorabilia, it was expected to sell for at least $80,000.

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