Space Memorabilia: Buying The Right Stuff

Mike Mitchell's study is jammed with the flotsam of the space age: behind-the-scenes photos, astronaut autographs, a Gemini 12 decal fished out of a cereal box, NASA mission patches. "Hey, we're all astronaut wannabes," says the Sayette (Me.) collector.

The popularity of space collectibles has been expanding along with the growing availability of memorabilia. In recent years, many U.S. astronauts have retired, and former Soviet cosmonauts have faced the hard economic realities of the new world order. So artifacts are flooding into the market, fetching prices from $5 for a stamp to several hundred thousand for a space suit worn in orbit.

Last December, Sotheby's in New York grossed $6.8 million in an auction of Soviet space material that included eating utensils, actual space capsules, and moon rocks. Superior Gallery of Beverly Hills held two sales in 1993 and plans more in May and September. Odyssey, an auction house in Corona, Calif., has a space sale scheduled for Feb. 27.

NO RUST. The most enthusiastic demand is for objects that have been in space. Gear used in training missions also brings top dollar. At the Sotheby's sale, a collector paid $442,000 for the first lunar rocks ever to be sold, and a flown space suit fetched $156,000. Someone even shelled out $68,500 for a lunar rover still parked on the moon. Since many of the items, which are being sold by individuals, ministries, and factories, weren't available until recently, reliable appraisals are hard to find. Sotheby's figured that its centerpiece lot, a flown Soyuz TM-10 capsule, would bring $3 million to $5 million. It sold for $1.6 million. But many lots brought prices far higher than estimated.

While many prices in this area are stratospheric, others are more down to earth. Mission patches average $3 to $5 but can sell for $2,000 if flown and documented. The most valuable badges are those sewn on space suit material, flown on early missions, or worn on worksuits by employees of such space contractors as Martin Marietta or Lockheed.

Some link to a mission increases an artifact's value. But don't think that because it flew in space, a control-panel bolt or a bit of plumbing will be a great investment. "People love eye-catching things," says Leo Malz, a Manhattan dealer in space stamps and autographs. "They want something to put on a desk or a wall, something they can comprehend."

Autographs can be an area of particular controversy. Collectors say it's an open secret that most astronauts signed photographs and letters with automatic signature machines. Autopen signatures are not nearly as valuable as real ones. But because it's hard to tell the difference, autopen signatures aren't always listed as such in catalogs. It's best to rely on the judgment of a respected dealer.

QUARTERLY SHOWS. Beyond the established categories lies a territory that can only be called "everything else." That includes such kitsch as NASA beer steins, mock ray guns, Apollo capsule models, even Donald Duck astronaut piggy banks. Collecting the Space Race by Stuart Schneider ($34.95, Schiffer) covers this area and includes a price guide.

If you're intrigued by space stuff, the Society for the Advancement of Space Activities (207 897-6855) publishes a newsletter with items of interest to collectors. Final Frontier magazine announces shows and auctions. A major event is the quarterly Space Memorabilia Show in Washington, D.C. (301 249-3895). The next one is Feb. 5.

You can start a collection with just about anything. Some collect "instant history" that chronicles the progress of space exploration: magazine covers like the TV Guide from the week of the first lunar landing or videos of broadcasts from orbit. At the Sotheby's auction, someone paid $1,035 for an unused urine bag flown aboard Soyuz 22. You can also buy shards of cement from launchpads. In space collecting, it seems, the "final frontier" remains far, far away.

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