April 4, 2007
– A Presidential Medal of Freedom that was prepared for award to Apollo 13 commander James Lovell and which was missing since 1970, has been recovered after the medal was offered for sale on eBay, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) announced on Tuesday.
A slight defect in the medal resulted in its replacement being manufactured and presented in its place to Lovell. The damaged medal was intended to be destroyed but instead it found its way out of the White House and into the hands of a private collector in Pennsylvania.
In January, that same collector listed the medal for sale on the website eBay. Originally advertised under the title "Presidential Medal of Freedom James A. Lovell Apollo 13", the auction was ended by the seller several times to make adjustments to its description. In the process, she removed all mention of Lovell's name.
At the time, the seller explained to potential bidders that the omission was to comply with eBay policies.
The description posted on the auction site touted that the medal was the "original" version meant for Lovell, calling it "the ultimate collector's item." The seller wrote that "this original medal was destined for the trash but lucky for us it was saved 37 years ago."
According to the FBI, Lovell learned that the medal was being offered for sale and became concerned about the propriety of the auction, the negative effect it might have on the medal as well as on other recipients of the award.
As a result, Lovell contacted the FBI.
"He was upset by the fact that it might diminish the medal itself," Special Agent Brian Brusokas, who works in the Cyber Crimes Unit in the Chicago office and opened the investigation, said.
Brusokas' investigation identified the seller and led, late last month, to the recovery of the medal and its wooden storage box that bears the presidential seal. The medal's authenticity was verified by the White House.
Since control the medal was never released by the White House, the collector's possession of it amounts to theft of government property.
The sale of a Presidential Medal of Freedom is not illegal or unprecedented. In 2000, actor James Cagney's medal was legally auctioned for $51,000. The difference between that sale and the Lovell award is that the Pennsylvania dealer didn't own the medal.
"It's legal," Brusokas said, "only if you have good title to it."
To date, no arrests have been made nor have charges been filed in connection with the recovery of the medal, although the FBI's investigation is still ongoing.
President Richard Nixon and astronaut James Lovell, Apollo 13 commander, shake hands at special ceremonies at Hickham Air Force Base, Hawaii. Nixon presented Lovell and his Apollo 13 crewmates with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. (NASA)
The medal presented to Lovell is still in his possession. He and his Apollo 13 crew members, Fred Haise and Jack Swigert received the honor, the nation's highest civilian award, on April 18, 1970 by President Richard M. Nixon at Hickam Air Force Base in Honolulu, Hawaii.
The crew had just returned safely to Earth the day earlier, having survived an in-flight explosion before reaching the Moon.
Lovell's role in the mission was dramatized by Tom Hanks in the 1995 movie Apollo 13.
"I am grateful to the FBI for their quick response," Lovell said, "and proud to be a recipient of our nation's highest civilian award."