Space Artifacts at Auctions Draw High Bids and Higher Scrutiny

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HOUSTON — A checklist that flew on NASA’s 1970 Apollo 13 Moon mission drew more than a dozen deep-pocketed collectors into a bidding war on Nov. 30, rocketing the final sale price into six figures.

As the prices paid for items like the checklist have risen over the past few years and as space history enthusiasts have increasingly chased after a dwindling supply of early NASA artifacts, the U.S. space agency has been keeping an ever closer eye on the collector’s market to ensure that the items being sold are not government property.

The winning bidder for Apollo 13 Commander Jim Lovell’s Lunar Module Activation Checklist, whom Heritage Auction Galleries identified only as an “east coast collector,” need not be worried about his or her $388,375 purchase. The flown 70-page, ring-bound book was sourced directly from the astronaut’s personal collection and falls into a class of mission-used equipment that crew members were allowed to keep as souvenirs.

By contrast, a man who tried to sell a 1.8-meter-tall NASA rocket engine on eBay over the summer did not have as clear-cut a claim on its rightful ownership. NASA investigators reported last month that they had reclaimed the 1960s-era Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne RL-10 engine, which had been valued at approximately $200,000. The RL-10 also is subject to the International Traffic in Arms Regulations and may not be sold or released to the public, according to the NASA investigators who recovered the engine. The Apollo 13 checklist was among more than 200 space artifacts auctioned Nov. 30 during Heritage’s ninth dedicated space-themed sale since 2007. At the end of the day, the auction brought in nearly $1 million for the Dallas gallery and its consignors.

Lovell’s notebook, which accounted for nearly one-third of the sale’s total take, was used by the Apollo 13 astronaut to guide him through the steps necessary to power up the lunar module.

Lovell said he found the checklist while cleaning out a bookshelf after he had donated many of his mission souvenirs to museums and given other items to his children.

I decided to put this up for auction so that someone who is really interested in this piece of history can enjoy it,” he told Reuters.

The winning $325,000 bid (the additional $63,375 was the auction house’s commission fee) was more than 15 times higher than the checklist’s pre-auction estimate of $25,000. Other flown checklists from other missions — including Apollo 11, the first lunar landing — have sold for six figures, but this may be most ever paid for one of these in-flight documents.

None of the Nov. 30 auction’s items’ ownership was challenged by NASA, which allowed the sales to go forward. The agency’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) will and has intervened if it believes that the artifacts being offered are still NASA property.

In recent months, OIG agents have halted the sale of small samples of Moon dust and began a lawsuit against Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell to reclaim a Moon-flown camera that he was set to sell for upward of $80,000. Mitchell settled that case out of court, returning the flown camera so it could be donated for display at the National Air and Space Museum. On Nov. 30, he instead sold one of his flown U.S. flags for $65,725.

Whether a NASA artifact can be sold, or is seized, often depends on whether the seller can clearly establish title. The flags that were carried aboard Apollo 14 and the other Moon missions were manifested as part of the astronauts’ personal preference kits, which were packed with the crew members’ mementos.

In the case of the RL-10 engine listed on the auction site eBay, the seller reportedly told investigators that he purchased it from an individual who had received it from “an unknown NASA employee.” Without documentation that the engine was released from NASA property, the OIG recovered the artifact.

 

Robert Z. Pearlman is editor of collectSPACE.com.