Apollo 12 pilot Alan Bean stands on the moon during the second lunar landing in November 1969. A Hasselblad camera is fixed to his chest, and mission commander Pete Conrad is crisply reflected on his helmetâ€™s visor, as Bean holds up a gleaming cylinder filled with lunar dust.
Space-philes can download a high-resolution version of this iconic black-and-white photograph for free from NASAâ€™s website at any time. But if youâ€™re looking for something a bit more luxe, and have $3,000 to spend, you can buy a much rarer, vintage silver gelatin print from Sothebyâ€™s. The image, developed in NASAâ€™s photographic laboratories immediately after the mission and autographed by Bean himself, is one of more than 200 prints peddled by the auction house in its first-ever space photos sale, taking place today.
â€œI love the stuff, people love the stuff,â€� says Cassandra Hatton, who started up space exploration auctions at Sothebyâ€™s three years ago. â€œGive the people what they want, you know?â€�
The market for space memorabilia is growing. Five years ago, Hatton handled a Bonhamâ€™s sale that brought in $1 million for just under 300 lots; her most recent in July at Sothebyâ€™s, involving 218 lots, nabbed $5.5 million. The 275-year-old auction house began dealing in space in 1993, when it sold three moon pebbles weighing .0007 ouncesâ€”about as much as a raindropâ€”for $442,500. Hatton resold them last year for nearly twice that. Sheâ€™s also brokered the $1.8 million sale of the cloth bag Neil Armstrong used to bring back the first lunar samples and a number of spacesuits. â€œI usually put them on and model them for our catalog,â€� she says. â€œCanâ€™t resist.â€�
The 50th anniversary of the moon landing has further fueled attention on spaceâ€”particularly photos. In July, Hatton sold a vintage print of Buzz Aldrin climbing down the ladder of the lunar module during the Apollo 11 mission for $40,000, her biggest image sale yet. People bid from all overâ€”the Middle East, Central America, Asiaâ€”though buyers from the US, UK, and France dominate. While some have a niche, like 19th century lunar photography, others are less discriminating. â€œI have one client in particular who is just an obsessive space photography collector and this is all they do,â€� Hatton says. â€œTheyâ€™re just constantly buying.â€�
NASA offerings in the current sale include official photographs numbered in red or black inkâ€”most taken with Hasselblads by the astronauts themselves and printed directly after the mission on glossy 8×10 Kodak paper for distribution among the press. Since they were frequently handled, finding popular imagesâ€”like Earthrise from Apollo 8, the first American spacewalk, or Buzz Aldrinâ€™s space selfieâ€”that arenâ€™t scuffed or ripped isnâ€™t easy.
Itâ€™s a similar story for the Lunar Orbiter prints on sale. Those were shot by unmanned aircraft between 1966 and â€™75 for the purpose of locating potential landing sites. Most depict dirt, craters, and other terrain. More exciting, off-mission shotsâ€”like the first view of Earth from the moonâ€”arenâ€™t as common. â€œThose would usually be printed at the request of a higher-up person in the military or NASA,â€� Hatton says. â€œThey weren’t printed in large batches.â€�
The more pristine prints tend to come to Sothebyâ€™s from former government workers in the military and at NASA who received them through their jobs, Hatton says. Years ago, someone found a bunch in a dumpster outside Edwards Air Force Base in Californiaâ€”a â€œone manâ€™s trash is another manâ€™s treasure kind of deal.â€� Most in the current sale come from private collector Phillip Kulpa. There are also some intimate, candidate snapshots from the estate of NASAâ€™s first Senior Photographer Bill Taub, who documented the Project Mercury and Apollo missions and hung his favorite snapshots on the walls of his home.
Oh also: UFO pics. The auction includes several taken in 1976 by â€œBillyâ€� Eduard Albert Meier, a Swiss ufologist who claimed that aliens began communicating with him at age 5 in 1942. Most famously, one image appeared prominently on a poster in the office of David Duchovnyâ€™s character on The X-Files. â€œA lot of my clients who are interested in space exploration are also kind of interested in the concept of alien life and UFOs,â€� Hatton says. â€œItâ€™s not too far off base.â€� Or, perhaps, one personâ€™s space shuttle is another personâ€™s spaceship.
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