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Space auctions show decline in values

May 10, 2001 — For the second time in as many years, auction firms Superior Galleries and Christie's hosted space memorabilia sales within days of each other. The synchronized scheduling gave collectors and dealers an opportunity to again examine the state of their pastime. Unlike the last time this happened in 1999 though — that demonstrated escalating values and demand — this year was highlighted by diminished and sporadic bidding.

Beverly Hills' based Superior Galleries held their May 5-6 sale at the Museum of Flying in Santa Monica.

Christie's offered their selection of astronaut artifacts a few days later on May 9 at their New York East offices.

The two houses offered a total of 3,211 lots (2,855 in California, 356 in New York) with the selection ranging from autographs to models, spacesuits to spacecraft. Catering to different clientele — Christie's to the investor, Superior to the hobbyist — the pre-auction estimates and reserves ranged from a few hundred dollars to millions, depending on the item and firm.

When the last hammer fell though, the two auctions had fared similarly. Despite the difference in lot counts and forecasted results, both Superior and Christie's reported gross sales of a $1.1 and $1.5 million each.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times

When Christie's organized their first space auction in September 1999, comparison to Superior came naturally. The latter had been hosting biannual space memorabilia sales since 1993 and as such, was considered by many as the primary source to expand (or disperse with) their space memorabilia collections.

Superior Galleries was first and foremost a "stamp and coin" auction house, and treated space memorabilia with a similar approach: with the hobbyist in mind and without other sources to offer precedence, they set their values and reserves to match the budgets of collectors. There were high value lots, but they were priced in accordance to the more plentiful memorabilia that comprised most of Superior's sales.

Christie's was an entirely different animal. Limiting their auction to only a few consignors — including several astronauts — the lots offered were priced without any regard to previous sales. Christie's audience was made up of wealthy investors and, as such, the opening bids were set to match.

To many collectors, the approach was equally puzzling as it was (initially) laughable. Surely the investors had become wealthy by doing their research and so they were bound to discover what similar items had sold for in the past, at Superior and elsewhere.

When the auction began though, the estimates were met and then some. For example, an Apollo 11 crew-signed photograph (Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins), estimated at $2,500-$3,500, closed at $10,000. A similar lot was sold at Superior for only $1,300.

Dealers were ecstatic as in the course of one day, their memorabilia's value had increased by as much as ten times their previous appraisal. Even former astronauts joined in the post-sale price hike increasing their fees to autograph items through the mail.

Collectors however, were left wondering about the hobby. How could they expand their collections, let alone attract new enthusiasts if the barrier to entry was their financial status?

Back to the future

With the advent of Web sites like eBay and continuing auctions at Superior in the interim, the market for space memorabilia had appeared to return to pre-Christie's 1999 values prior to the latest set of sales.

So it came as some surprise to collectors when the results of the spring 2001 Superior sale became clear. In addition to lots failing to reach their reserves, those that did, did so at lower than expected values. Items typically in high demand — crew-autographed photographs and space-flown equipment — failed to attract attention and therefore many "steals" were to be found.

Likewise at Christie's: Barely filling the room during either of the two sessions (the first sale had commanded standing room only), nearly 55 percent of the lots were "passed" when they failed to reach their reserves. And while the New York auction house was able to tout a top 10 list of above-estimate closes, when compared to the 1999 results the true success of the sale was in question.

The highlight of Christie's 1999 sale was a Moon dust covered NASA emblem and astronaut nametag belonging to the late Apollo 15 Moonwalker James Irwin. The single lot, which included certification from NASA identifying the gray stains as lunar in origin, sold for $310,000. In an attempt to follow the success of the previous sale, Christie's once again offered dust-soiled artifacts, including four additional patches worn by Irwin on the Moon.

Sold as a set — an American flag, the mission logo, a NASA emblem and Irwin's nametag from the front of his spacesuit — fetched the largest bid during the May 9 sale of $358,000.

Other artifacts to sell at Christie's included a report prepared by Yuri Gagarin about his flight as the first human in space ($171,000), a map used to navigate on the Moon's surface ($94,000) and an autographed photograph of the first and second group of astronauts ($58,750).

Likewise, Superior Galleries' also posted success with several rare artifacts, including a segment of the parachute that lowered John Glenn's 1962 Mercury capsule to safe splashdown. The 88-inch by 34-inch (2.2-meter by 0.9-meter) swatch of material sold for $10,350. High bids were also recorded for a silk American flag flown to the Moon aboard Apollo 11 ($21,850), Aldrin's white cotton glove liner from the same flight ($15,525) and an Apollo 17-flown lunar sample containment bag stained with dust ($24,150).

Not all rare space-flown items sold however, Most notably, a complete Soyuz reentry capsule, only the second manned vehicle to be offered for public auction, failed to attract a single bid when Superior opened the floor at $1.5 million. Similarly at Christie's, an Apollo spacesuit cover sized for Neil Armstrong was just one of the many lots which failed to meet their reserve.

Analyzing the auctions

Collectors in attendance at both auctions, and inside discussion groups online, tried to explain the mixed results. Many felt the poor performance could be traced to outside influences such as an unsteady stock market, the length and formats of the auctions and/or the saturation of the hobby by online auctions.

Superior's auctions ran long, primarily due to the addition of live online bidding, stretching nearly 10 hours both days. In some cases, key lots were not being opened well until after dark.

Meanwhile at Christie's, which targets investors, the lack of a strong market, as was evidenced during the 1999 event, was cited as a possible reason for the lower attendance and the large percentage of failed closings.

Ultimately though, the auctions may signal a decline in interest for collecting or investing in space memorabilia. Time is needed to let the market balance — as was the case in 1999 — but both auction houses and collectors will be seeking answers in the weeks to come.

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