Follow the Stories | Houston, Texas (2006)
Space "Junk": Buying, Owning, and the Law
NASA-licensed memorabilia are an affordable way to start a collection.
Authentic mission patches, such as this one commemorating a Skylab mission, are more expensive.
This picture from the Apollo 16 moon-landing is signed by astronaut Charles Duke, who piloted the lunar module.
"Flown items" that went to space as part of actual missions are extremely desirable, such as this NASA-issued packet of toasted bread cubes autographed by Buzz Aldrin.
Private citizens are forbidden from owning moon rocks and other geological samples from outer space.
An autographed photo of Al Worden, command module pilot for the Apollo 15 mission.
As a young boy, Gary Piattoni used to wait expectantly to receive a NASA mission packet in the mail that described what had transpired on the last Apollo mission. He also built plastic model replicas of Apollo spacecraft, and he even had fleeting boyhood dreams of becoming an astronaut one day.
Gary grew up to become not an astronaut, but an appraiser — he has his own appraisal business in Evanston, Illinois. Still, his occupation has allowed him to handle his fair share of space memorabilia, a popular specialty niche in the memorabilia market today. "It's like anything else in the collecting field," says Gary, an ANTIQUES ROADSHOW appraiser. "Why do people collect Lincoln papers or a gun that was used at Gettysburg? It's because those objects capture people's imagination and owning them brings people closer to the events and people that mean something to them. Owning something that's been to the moon is as close as most people will get to being there."
Collectors who want a low-cost launch into space memorabilia might start with the tens of thousands of NASA-licensed objects sold at space center and museum gift shops, such as limited edition coins or photographs, which usually sell for well under a hundred dollars. It's also possible to find affordable space collectibles that are less generic if you're willing to settle for the odd item. At a 2004 auction at Swann Galleries in New York City, a Gemini 6 crew portrait sold for $126, an Apollo 16 and 17 flight crew dictionary for $258, an earth orbit chart from Apollo 14 for $316, and an Apollo 15 lunar surface checklist for $460.
Interested in launching a collection of out-of-this-world souvenirs? Here's what you need to know
Mission patches are a collectible category unto themselves. Replica patches are the cheapest finds in this category, usually selling at gift shops for under $10. Rarer are embroidered patches connected to a particular mission, usually made for support personnel, NASA managers, VIPs, and others, which sell from $50 to a few thousand dollars, depending on the mission. The stars among patches, though, are called "beta cloth patches," which are fire-proof silk-screened patches meant to travel with astronauts on their missions. The patches are sewn onto uniforms, backpacks or other equipment, although others stand alone as patches that astronauts have taken into space and then passed out to family and friends as souvenirs. Gary valued one silk-screened patch, signed by a Skylab crew but never worn, at $300 to $500.
Another favorite space collectible is astronaut autographs. A signature by Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, sells for at least $500, Gary says. "Neil Armstrong signed very little, and now he's stopped signing altogether," Gary says. Collectors also pay a premium for the always-rare signatures of astronauts who died in mission accidents, such as those by the three astronauts who were killed in the Apollo 1 fire, or signatures by Christa McAuliffe, the teacher who died in the Challenger accident in January 1986. But Gary points out that collectors can find signatures for as little as $50 to $100 for many other well-known astronauts, such as John Glenn, the first American to orbit the earth, or Al Worden, the command module pilot on Apollo 15 who completed a deep space walk.
High-End Space Memorabilia
"The epicenter of the space collectible world is the moon landings," Gary says. "A flown item from Apollo 11, the first mission to the moon, would be a centerpiece of any collection." At a 1999 Christie's auction, a photograph of the Apollo 11 crew that was signed by its astronauts sold for $10,000. Gary says a package of toasted bread cubes from the Apollo 11 flight, signed by astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, is worth about $25,000.
Gary also notes that whatever flew into space and back — whether vehicle equipment, spacesuits, or supplies — sells for more than earth-bound space memorabilia. For example, one "flown" engine bolt that was part of the space shuttle Challenger is worth about $250. If it had never left a launch pad, Gary estimates the same bolt might sell for a more down-to-earth price of $20. Such NASA equipment hits the market when agency managers decide to sell surplus items that are no longer useful. These items are often sold with paperwork, a clear provenance trail that Gary says is essential to have with any collectibles from space.
What's Off Limits
While there is a vast universe of space memorabilia to collect, Gary warns that collectors do need to stay clear of a few space artifacts. Stolen items are also off limits, though that's a restriction that applies to all antiques and collectibles. "Stay away from anyone in a back alley who offers to sell you Buzz Aldrin's space suit from the first moon landing," Gary says. "It's supposed to be in the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C." Gary recommends purchasing space collectibles from reputable dealers, most of whom are clustered around the Johnson Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, or in Houston, Texas.
Individuals are also forbidden to buy or sell any of the wreckage from the tragically ill-fated space shuttles Challenger and Columbia. "They're considered memorials," Gary says. Also out of bounds is anything from the surface of the moon, such as moon rocks, pebbles, core samples and nearly all of the 842 pounds of moon dust that was flown back to earth. All such samples are considered a national treasure, Gary says, and it's illegal for individuals to own them.
Moon Dust for Sale
For those who are determined to possess a bit of the moon, there is one legal way to get it. It is legal to buy and sell moon dust that has come back on space artifacts. In 1999, Christie's in New York City sold a beta patch that was silk-screened with the mission patch and the name of James Irwin, the Apollo 15 astronaut who was the first to drive a lunar rover. The patch came with a light coat of moon dust. Christie's sold that patch for $300,000.
At a Superior Galleries sale in Beverly Hills in October 2000, one lucky collector named Florian Noller spotted a bag used to store artifacts collected on the moon that was taken from the Apollo 15 command module Endeavor. He bought the bag for $2,300. When Noller looked inside the bag, he found a previously unnoticed sprinkling of moon dust along its seams. He put scatterings of dust on little thumb-sized white cards and placed them on photos of astronaut James Irwin saluting the American flag, and then sold them in 2001 through Spaceflori, the German space memorabilia dealer he formed. Compared to the Irwin patch, this serendipitous moon dust was a bargain: the 12 larger cards sold for $2,495, the 50 smaller ones for $995.
See the Houston, Texas (2006) page for a list of all appraisals from this city.
For more on space collectibles, see:
A Web site formed in 1999 for space history enthusiasts and space artifact collectors, founded and edited by Robert Pearlman. Pearlman acted as an advisor to Gary Piattoni and ANTIQUES ROADSHOW for the on-air segment in Houston about space memorabilia.
Relics of the Space Race, by Russell F. Still (Roswell, Georgia: PR Products, 1995).
Dennis Gaffney is a freelance writer in Albany, New York. He has been a contributor to Antiques Roadshow Online since 1998.