Desk set with moon fragments up for auction

Dust embedded in epoxy part of a retirement gift

November 27, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

The desk set - a few pieces of plastic amateurishly glued together - is battered and scratched. The pen was snapped off years ago. On the left side is a yellowing blob of epoxy in the shape of a rock. On the right is a small plaque: "Presented to JOE HEALY From his friends at LRL."

Cost: at least $50,000, the minimum bid in an Internet auction now under way.

This nondescript piece - a retirement gift to Healy, an engineer at NASA's Lunar Receiving Laboratory who worked on the Apollo missions and who died a decade ago - is believed to contain some of the rarest material to be found on Earth: fragments of the moon.

The fragments are small - specks, really, embedded within the epoxy blob, smaller than the air bubbles and harder to spot - but they nonetheless appear to be the largest sample of Apollo moon rock ever to be offered for sale, at least legally.

"It's got magic attached to it, don't you think?" said Healy's daughter, Margaret Davis of Dalles, Ore., who is putting the heirloom up for sale. "It's really from the moon."

NASA will not vouch for it, however. The space agency examined it under a microscope in 1999. In a statement released when the desk set was returned to Davis, NASA said, "the particles submitted for testing did not exhibit any characteristic features commonly associated with lunar soil" and that more extensive testing could not be conducted without destroying it.

As of yesterday evening, no one had yet bid on the item. The auction continues until 10 p.m. next Thursday, although last-minute bidding could extend it.

"The serious bidders usually don't show their hand until the last day," said Bruce Mauro, acquisitions manager for Leland's Inc., the Internet auction house based in Seaford, N.Y., that is handing the auction. "They all lay back in the weeds. If there's going to be a bid on it, it'll probably be then." (The auction can be viewed at www.lelands.com by clicking "Americana" link and then to "Space.")

In the three decades since the Apollo landings, NASA has jealously guarded most of the 843 pounds of moon rock collected by the astronauts. It considers them "national treasures," property of the federal government, although a few pieces were given as gifts to foreign governments.

In September, the United States returned to Honduras a moon rock that President Richard M. Nixon gave the country in 1973 but was later stolen and ended up with a dealer in Miami. Last year, three interns at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston stole a safe containing moon rocks valued at $2.5 million to $7 million. They, plus a conspirator in Utah, were caught and convicted.

For legal lunar material, collectors have had to content themselves with moon rocks brought back to Earth by unmanned Soviet probes or with pieces of clothing and equipment stained with moon dust. A one-carat Russian moon pebble sold for more than $400,000 at Sotheby's in 1993.

When Healy retired in 1970, his colleagues pulled tiny fragments from a box of Apollo 11 rocks and mixed them into a blob of epoxy shaped like the first moon rock to be put on public display. The desk set also includes two pieces of mylar from the Apollo 11 and 12 lunar landers.

Soon thereafter, NASA administrators sent out memos telling employees not to give away any lunar samples, but no one asked Healy to return his desk set. He often took it to schools to show it to children.

"He kept it in a shoe box," said Davis, "and when he didn't have it out showing it to someone, he had it under his bed."

Over the years, the epoxy, once clear, has turned amber, and his wife, Cynthia, snapped the pen off one day when she needed something to write with.

With the Healys' deaths, the desk set passed on to Davis, who kept it in a safe deposit box. She planned to donate it to a local museum but wanted to know its value, for tax deduction purposes. In 1999 she sent it to John Reznikoff, a dealer in Connecticut, who told her it could be worth $1 million.

Reznikoff says that when he called NASA with questions about the desk set, the agency seized it. NASA replies that it was voluntarily turned over for examination. In any event, after the inconclusive look, NASA returned it a couple of months later.

Gavin P. Lentz, a lawyer from Philadelphia representing Davis, said he wrote NASA a year and a half ago telling it of Davis' plans to sell the desk set. He said NASA had not replied with any objections.

Davis, a social worker, said the sale would help pay debts from her children's education.

"I can't afford to sit on that sort of asset," she said. "It would be lovely to be able to keep it, but I don't think I can. I don't think I could set it out on the coffee table and exhibit it. I would be afraid someone would take it."

And, she asked, "How do I divide it down the road between four children?"

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.