Going Once: Space Capsule, Slightly Used

Astronaut gloves, moondust, gear from Houston's Mission Control -- space stuff is blasting off on the auction block

If Dennis Tito, the American financier who bought his way onto a Soyuz spacecraft for $20 million, is smart, he'll overpack for his trip into space on Apr. 28. The reason: Stuff that has been in space is fetching a pretty penny on the auction block these days. Space items -- especially those that, as collectors put it, have "flown" -- can be a handsome investment. And two new auctions of space stuff set for May will test the demand anew.

Questions linger over the long-term prospects for the space market, owing to the Smithsonian Institution's right of first refusal on all artifacts from missions conducted by NASA. And attaching a value to some larger items -- space capsules and satellites, for example -- can be very, well, up and down. But the demand is there. "I've seen a lot of this stuff over the last 10 to 15 years, and it has doubled and tripled in price," reports collector A. Clarkson, who won't disclose his first name or location, citing security concerns.


  Yes, well-heeled bidders will actually have a chance to buy an actual space capsule -- a Russian one that played a part in keeping the trouble-plagued Mir space station in orbit back in 1997. Set to go on the block on the second day of Superior Galleries' Spring 2001 Space Memorabilia Auction, which starts on May 5, it is expected to fetch between $2 million and $2.5 million.

The capsule's fine points: It was in space for 197 days, weighs 2.8 tons, has a diameter of 2.2 meters, and an exterior surface blackened from the heat of reentry. If you can't wait for the auction at Superior's Beverly Hills headquarters, bids advance bids can be placed via the icollector.com online auction service.

Will there be a buyer? That's anyone's guess. Sotheby's, in 1993, was the first to offer a Soyuz capsule -- sold for $1.3 million to Ross Perot, who contributed the craft to the Smithsonian. In fact, the sale as a whole was a resounding success, bringing in $6.8 million. "Our experience was that if the property was very choice and interesting, we got terrific competition and good results," says Sotheby's spokesman Matthew Weigman. Besides the Soyuz craft that went to Perot, three tiny lunar pebbles obtained by a Soviet robot moon probe sold for $440,000.

Alas, Sotheby's second space sale in 1996 was something of a bust, bringing in a mere $993,000 for a Russian Kosmos spy satellite and a variety of other items. "We didn't have properties as wonderful as that [in '93]," Weigman says.


  Richard Austin of rival auction house Christie's, which will have its own space sale of smaller items on May 9, wonders how many private collectors might still be captivated by the novel prospect of owning a multi-ton spacecraft. "That was an excitement you couldn't duplicate a second time," says Austin, who heads the books and manuscripts department at Christie's East in Manhattan and is involved with the upcoming space sale.

So what kind of memorabilia is likely to tickle a minor collector's fancy? Think envelopes -- known to stamp buffs as "covers" -- that were postmarked on the date of an Apollo mission and carried aboard a capsule. Or moondust, which is illegal to own if brought home by an Apollo crew but still sought by some collectors. Or astronaut gloves, helmets, and suits -- even pieces of the console used by engineers at Mission Control in Houston during the Apollo missions.

Then there's the prestige stuff, like a four-page typed report by pioneer Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, that Christie's will offer on May 9. Gagarin, of course, was the first man in space in 1961, and his report describes what it felt like to be weightless and see the earth from hundreds of miles up. The expected asking price: $150,000 to $200,000.


  That's not all. Other big items in the sale include a presentation frame containing moondust-sprinkled emblems from the suit of astronaut James Irwin of Apollo 15 in 1971 (expected to fetch $250,000 to $350,000) and a lunar map used on Apollo 16. Clarkson, the collector, is proud of his Gemini 5 headset, his (unflown) Russian space gloves, and the photo of his kids that somehow got aboard a Soyuz flight ("I have connections").

But when it comes to investing, he thinks first of his Apollo 15 philatelic cover, which he bought six years ago for about $3,500. Today, he believes it would bring between $13,500 and $17,000. He also mentions a postcard he saw at a sale with a piece of Scotch tape attached. On the tape: a sprinkling of moondust, captured from a moon-walking astronaut's suit by some entrepreneurial soul from the cleaning staff in Houston. Value: According to Clarkson, about $15,000.

At Christie's, Austin thinks it's still "a little early" to assess the long-term market, so he'll be watching the May 9 sale closely. All the same, he's optimistic. "When you think about it, [space] is a category people have focused on a long time -- it's travel and exploration," Austin says. "But no one has concentrated on collecting space material until recently." Perhaps the price will go where no price has gone before.

By Joan Oleck in New York

Edited by Nicole St. Pierre

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