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Claims of rarity infuriate patch maker
by Barbara Barrett, The News & Observer

February 6, 2003 — The Columbia shuttle disaster Saturday sent a North Carolina embroidery company surging into overdrive this week and left its top officials seething at what they consider unethical profiteering on eBay, the online auction house.

"Seven people died. It's a tragedy, and you've got greedy people wanting to profit off it," said Andrew Nagle, vice president of AB Emblem of Weaverville.

The company has produced official NASA mission patches since Apollo 11 lifted off in 1969. Theirs are the patches sewn into the sleeves of astronauts' flight suits.

The patches go for $4.95 at the Smithsonian in Washington, Kennedy Space Center in Florida and The Space Store in Houston.

And this week, those patches launched an entrepreneurial frenzy on eBay, where sellers are asking $75, $500, even $10,000. One bid late Tuesday -- probably a hoax -- reached more than $10 million.

Some sellers pledged to send the money to charity. Others just asked for the money. One seller touted them as "very rare" collectibles.

Not true at all, retorted Nagle. In fact, he said, his company had produced 30,000 of the patches before mission STS-107 lifted off. Now it's making more.

The mission's multicolored patches are shuttle-shaped, with the seven astronauts' surnames stitched in white around the edge. A bright yellow star shoots up the patch's center.

Several patches have been found among Columbia's debris. Nagle thinks the recovered patches were among several hundred that usually accompanied the astronauts in orbit, stuffed into duffel bags.

The tragedy Saturday hit Nagle and the plant's 75 workers personally. Astronauts help design the patches. Some have visited the company at its Buncombe County plant in the Appalachians, and Nagle has gone to the astronauts' office in Houston.

The company is a family enterprise begun by a German tailor in 1892. It moved to the United States, first in New York, then to the Appalachians in 1963. Nagle's father-in-law, Bernhard Conrad, is president.

The company has plants in Mexico, Taiwan and China but makes its NASA patches in the United States. AB Emblem makes Boy Scout and Girl Scout awards, military insignia and other patches. Last year, it did $8.5 million in sales, Nagle said.

This week, the company put on hold its work on two future mission patches and dedicated five 10-foot-long embroidery machines to stitching together the seven colors of the STS-107 patch. A second shift was added.

The machines' clack-clack-clack probably will be heard from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. for the next two or three weeks. Nagle expects to produce an additional 20,000 to 30,000 patches.

The company also began producing a commemorative STS-107 patch, which shows the dark outline of the shuttle encircled in a blue ribbon.

AB Emblem will be making money off the patches, Nagle acknowledged.

"Nobody likes getting business on tragedy," he said. At the plant, "Everybody's working hard, and there's pride, but there's no joy."

Still, he added, the profits won't last. With the shuttle program on hold, future patches won't go on sale yet. AB Emblem went two years without a new shuttle patch after the 1986 Challenger disaster.

He sent an e-mail message to eBay on Tuesday complaining about the online sales and said he might buy a banner ad warning viewers not to buy the patches on the site.

Spokesman Kevin Pursglove of eBay said the company won't immediately remove patches from sale unless AB Emblem can prove that sellers are infringing on protected intellectual property or misrepresenting themselves.

Other eBay users will sometimes shun sellers they believe to be unscrupulous, Pursglove said. But the company doesn't explore the ethical minefields of overpriced or distasteful memorabilia.

"We pretty much leave it up to the users," Pursglove said.

The preceding first appeared in The News & Observer. It is reprinted here with permission.

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