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One Small Step for Man, One Giant Sale for Mankind: Inside the Space Memorabilia Market

One Small Step for Man, One Giant Sale for Mankind: Inside the Space Memorabilia Market
October 26, 2023
Dylan Dittrich

Photo: RR Auction

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Shovels don't often sell for close to one million dollars.

Most shovels, though, haven't been thrust into the moon's surface. Most shovels haven't collected hundreds of pounds in lunar samples. And even among those that have, most haven't returned to earth to tell the tale. They rest up there looking down on us, stranded vestiges of missions in which they had served their purpose and then represented nothing more than unneeded weight.

Charlie Duke's scoop from Apollo 16 made it back to earth, and last week it sold for $874,998 in a $2 million event at RR Auction, the house that has seemingly cornered the market for artifacts that braved the final frontier.

Twice annually for the last decade, RR Auction has hosted Space Exploration and Aviation auction events, assembling troves of assets that have spent time in space on missions. People talk about collectibles "mooning" - many of the assets sold at RR literally have. And the values aren't so pedestrian and earthly either.

Duke's lunar scoop is the second most expensive item to see the moon's surface sold by the auction house. The crown belongs to Commander Scott's Apollo 15 lunar surface-worn chronograph, the only privately-owned watch worn on the moon, which sold for $1,592,500 back in 2015.  Those two items stand above the fray of all of the controllers, manuals, computers, and checklists that have crossed the auction block.

Along the way, the auction house has built a sturdy competitive position in space exploration artifacts. Competition for earthly consignments and historical objects is fierce, but items that have left our atmosphere very frequently end up at RR, and then many of those same objects end up back at RR when the previous buyer is ready to move on. Can you call something as vast as space a niche?

Many of the consignments come from the astronauts themselves, or at least they did the first time they were sold, contributing to enviable provenance. Memorabilia from other categories so often relies upon the word of one person who came into contact with the star in a fateful moment some 20 years earlier. The astronauts' collections are surprisingly broad and deep; some have had a bevy of space-flown flags up for sale. What, were these guys stuffing their suits with merch like NFL rookies wearing 25 jerseys at once at the rookie photoshoot?! Nonetheless, space flags just so happen to be a hot category.

Over the last decade at RR, we count 183 lots containing flags that have flown in space, amassing nearly $1.4 million in total sales. While the wind doesn't blow in space - except for solar wind - the flag category seems to be enjoying a nice tailwind in 2023. Sales have totaled nearly $193k with an average sales price of just over $12,000. That's both the highest volume and average in the last four years by some margin. The closest figures were achieved in 2022 with $151k in volume and nearly $8,400 in average sales price respectively.

The repeat sales - and there are many of them - often support the idea of rising interest and dollar values. At last week's auction, the Apollo 11 flown flag from the collection of Michael Collins sold for $86,100. The flag previously sold in 2014 for $55,125. Or take Dave Scott's Apollo 15 Landed Flag Display. It eked out gains from a prior April 2020 sale of $15,000 when it sold for $18,749 last week.

The oddity - or space oddity, if you will - is that repeat sales do occur with such frequency. It's not surprising that the items resurface at RR when they do sell, given the house's well-carved competitive position, but we're a bit surprised to find space collectors are such serial flippers.  Four of the top 24 lots in the event had sold at the house previously. That's probably not a percentage dissimilar from what you might see at a high-end art auction, but we wonder what inspires collectors to sell their space swag. Do they just look up at the moon one day and say, "Eh, I've seen enough"? Or is it an aging collecting base in general?

Either way, the vintage space memorabilia category is fascinating. Can't wait to see what Bezos and Elon make of the ultra-modern category.

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