Published: December 1, 2020
Review by Greg Smith, Photos Courtesy Heritage Auctions
DALLAS – There are many apt ways to describe the magic of flight as it pertains to the strong interest level in NASA and space artifacts that came to the fore at Heritage Auctions’ November 21-22 Space Exploration Signature Sale. The auction brought in a gross total of $1,747,281 and went 98 percent sold by lot.
Space Exploration department director Michael Riley puts together two sales each year, this one culling from about five dozen collections with a few notables thrown in. There were about 150 examples from Neil Armstrong’s estate, a collection Heritage has been moving through since 2018. Material from the estates of astronauts Richard Gordon, Alan Bean and John Young were also present. Pieces from collector Lee Nunn were also on tap.
There’s much to find within Riley’s sale and collectors are fastidious.
“Various buyers collect various subgenres of the big picture,” Riley said. “Some collect signed photos, some are interested in flown flags or flown medals. Heritage has such a large base of coin collectors that a lot of the medals attract them. We’re getting new collectors all the time.”
The Armstrong collection continues to be a draw for the firm. “Such a figure is Neil Armstrong,” Riley said, “When you look to the greatest explorers throughout history, he’s right there with them. People want something that he had.”
The department has not had a single sale dip beneath the $1 million mark since they began offering the Armstrong collection. For its premier in November 2018, they pulled in more than $7 million. More is still coming out and Riley says they’ll continue on for “quite some time.”
From the Armstrong collection came an artifact that spoke to the advancement of flight. A 1-1/8-inch-square piece of muslin cloth, originally part of the wing fabric of the Wright brothers’ flyer that made history in 1903 as the first successful powered controlled flight at Kitty Hawk, was stowed on Apollo 11 with Armstrong and made its way to the moon aboard the lunar module in 1969, the first time humans landed on the lunar surface. It sold for $81,250.
“The Air Force Museum made a deal with Armstrong that if he took pieces of the Wright propeller and wing to the lunar surface, once they were returned he would get to keep part of it,” Riley said. “This was a part that he got to keep.”
If bidders were purists and wanted a Wright brothers muslin wing cloth from the first flight without the Apollo angle, it could have been had for $6,875.
“There’s a lot of fascination with the first flight,” Riley continued. “It was the first step to the moon.” Other pieces in the sale that traced their significance back to Kitty Hawk included a Wilbur Wright signed “La Conquette de L’Air” postcard from Le Mans, France, 1908, which brought $16,250. The postcard signifies the great international celebrity the Wright brothers enjoyed following their successful endeavor as they toured Europe and exhibited their improving planes. The auction house said Wilbur’s signature is “a large factor rarer” than his brother Orville’s, whose signature appeared on a “First Aeroplane Flight” photo taken by John T. Daniels that brought $13,125.
Before the FAA licensed pilots, it was the chairman of contest committee of the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, Orville Wright, whose signature would appear on any license given out by the organization. A 1929 early aviator’s certificate with Wright’s signature and presented to Irving Girard Hay found interest to $3,250. Hay was the 71st pilot ever certified. The auction house located a February 1967 article in the Panama Canal Review that reads, “Capt. Irving G. Hay treasures his plane pilot license as signed by Orville Wright. Captain Hay was a commercial pilot in the pioneering days and at one time was with an airline in Peru.”
Included in a group of 12 signed lunar surface photographs of Apollo moonwalkers was the only 70mm still of Neil Armstrong on the moon.
“Of all the 70mm pictures you see of Apollo 11, Buzz Aldrin is in all but one,” Riley said, nodding to the rarity of Armstrong’s lone survivor that was signed by the astronaut and dedicated to Ron Heiskell. The lot sold for $11,875.
The second highest lot in the sale at $75,000 was a pair of sunglasses with case that Apollo 16 mission lunar module pilot Charlie Duke wore on the moon. They contained traces of lunar dust on them. The glasses had once been apart of the collection of Jim Ruddy, a well-known space collector.
Taking top among the medals was an Apollo 11 flown MS66 NGC sterling silver Robbins medallion from the Armstrong collection. It sold for $62,500 and was one of 450 flown aboard Apollo 11. Another Robbins medallion, this one flown aboard Apollo 12 and from the collection of astronaut Ron Evans, took $27,500. It was the highest known graded example of the 262 flown on that mission.
From collector Lee Nunn came a leather World War II army air forces model A-11 flying helmet signed by 19 aviators that sold for $32,500. Among them were astronauts Aldrin, Bean, Borman, Conrad, Cooper, Crippen, Engle, Duke, Gordon, Haise, Mitchell, Stafford and Truly, but also from others that set remarkable feats. Signed was Chuck Yeager, the first man to break the sound barrier and Dick Rutan, the aviator who piloted the first nonstop unrefueled around-the-world flight. Also there was Pete Everest, who once set the world altitude record and the world speed record.
Apollo 12 astronaut Alan Bean’s lunar module-flown ACR flashlight sold for $13,750. The brass-milled flashlight was only 5-1/8 inches long and was in Bean’s personal collection until his death. Another flashlight from the astronaut, used aboard Skylab II (SL-3), sold for $5,500.
From Apollo 8 was a collection of three space food samples that included Canadian bacon and applesauce, beef stew bites and beef sandwiches. The food, which brought $3,750, was developed by the Whirlpool Corporation, whose Life Support Laboratory was instrumental in the process of freeze-dehydrating foods for the NASA space flights.
Heritage Auctions’ next Space Exploration sale is scheduled for May 21-22. For more information, www.ha.com or 214-528-3500.
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