How much can a moon dust bag from Apollo 11’s historic moon landing fetch in an auction? The answer to that question would be a cool $1.5 million before auction house premiums are figured in. But what may be more interesting is the story of how all that moon dust went from the hands of Neil Armstrong to a private owner, and how the bag ultimately sold on the Sotheby’s auction block on the 48th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission.
As recounted by NPR, the small bag containing moon dust taken during the Apollo 11 mission in 1969 was separated from other artifacts from the moon landing. While most of the equipment had ended up with the Smithsonian, the Apollo 11 moon dust bag had somehow found its way to Hutchinson, Kansas man Max Ary, who had previously served as director of the Cosmosphere space museum in the city.
The report added that the lunar sample bag may have made its way from the Smithsonian to Hutchinson’s Cosmosphere sometime in the late 1970s or early 1980s — it’s hard to tell, as record keeping in those times was “at best inexact.”
According to the Kansas City Star, Ary was later convicted in federal court of selling property belonging to the Cosmosphere and keeping the proceeds. Most of the items from the museum were seized by government officials, then sold off to pay Ary’s legal expenses and fines.
By 2015, the U.S. Marshals Service held an auction offering multiple pieces of space memorabilia, including the Apollo 11 moon dust bag. The latter item was snapped up by Inverness, Illinois real estate attorney Nancy Lee Carlson, who was the only bidder — the Kansas City Star believes that this may have been because nobody had any clue the small bag was used in the first manned moon mission in history.
— NBC Nightly News (@NBCNightlyNews) July 20, 2017
Originally listed as a “flown zippered lunar sample return bag” with 11.5 inches of lunar dust from an unknown mission, the Apollo 11 moon dust bag was first priced at $20,000 in 2014. One year later, Carlson successfully bid only $995 to get her hands on the bag.
Later on, Carlson would send the lunar sample bag to NASA’s Johnson Space Center to see if really did contain moon dust. When NASA confirmed that it did, and that the dust was taken during the Apollo 11 mission from almost 48 years ago to this day, the space agency decided that it was a “national treasure that belongs to the American people,” and not in the hands of a private citizen.
Carlson and NASA both went to court over the ownership of the Apollo 11 moon dust bag, with the Illinois lawyer insisting that she had legitimately won it at an auction. Last December, it was ruled that the bag shouldn’t have been auctioned off, but with courts having no authority to reverse the sale, Carlson was able to reclaim the prized item.
That brings us to the present, as reports emerged yesterday of Carlson selling the lunar sample bag to the highest bidder, via prestigious auction house Sotheby’s. On the 48th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, the bag sold for $1.5 million, or $1.8 million if premiums paid to Sotheby’s are factored in. That’s still lower than the auction house’s predicted value of at least $2 million, but nonetheless a huge amount of money for Nancy Lee Carlson via the sale.
Hours after the moon dust bag was sold, another Apollo artifact was sold by Sotheby’s — the flight plan for the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission of 1970, with notations from all three crew members. This item sold for $275,000, according to a report from the Washington Post.
What does Carlson plan to do with the proceeds from the Apollo 11 moon dust bag’s sale, now that she’s $1.5 million richer? According to Sotheby’s, she is planning to donate part of the proceeds to several charities, and also looking forward to set up a scholarship for speech pathology students at her alma mater of Northern Michigan University.
UPDATE [7/23/2017, 4:01 a.m. ET] – Information on other Apollo item sold at Sotheby’s auction
[Featured Image by NASA/Getty Images]