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WHO SAYS Science, the weekly magazine of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, is full of dull and boring (you’ll excuse the expression) science? Here’s a tale of scientific paraphernalia that involves theft and money laundering, a government screwup, a remedy making things even worse, a $995 auction, a custody battle worthy of a tabloid divorce story, a $1.8 million auction, and, finally, one hopes, the possibility of some people benefitting from it all.
The tale begins with Apollo 11’s mission to the moon almost half-a-century ago. During their lunar excursion, July 20 and 21, 1969, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong collected 47.5 lb. of lunar material in several Lunar Sample Return bags; one of them, a zipped bag about the size of today’s laptop.
Back on Earth, the bags were retained by NASA and stored with the U.S. National Collection at the Smithsonian. Later, one was apparently lent to Cosmosphere, a space museum in Hutchinson, Kansas, about 175 miles southwest of Topeka, the state’s capital. (Unfortunately, the museum’s Lunar Output exhibit is closed for renovation at this time through October 31, 2017.)
According to The Kansas City Star, May 29, 2017, “At some point in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Smithsonian sent loosely organized boxes of materials to Kansas that probably included the lunar sample bag.” It’s likely the bag ended up stored in the Cosmosphere basement.
Until Max Ary, director of the museum at the time, got into action. According to npr.org, July 20, 2017, “Ary began selling artifacts—not just his own personal collection, but items that belonged to the museum or to NASA, which weren’t his to sell. In 2005, he was convicted of theft, money laundering and fraud, and sent to prison.”
The lunar bag had ended up in Ary’s garage. The government seized it with other of Ary’s ill-gotten loot and eventually auctioned things off. The U.S. Marshall’s Office described the bag as a “flown zippered lunar sample return bag with lunar dust. 11.5 [inches]. Tear at Center. Flown Mission Unknown.”
The bag, with a suggested bid of $20,000, didn’t sell at three different auctions in 2014. Then, a year later, Nancy Carlson of Inverness, Illinois, space enthusiast and evidently smart shopper, bought it for $995.
Carlson sent the bag to NASA Johnson Space Center to learn more about its provenance. JSC determined that indeed it contained lunar dust and had definitely been on Apollo 11, its serial number identifying it as a “Contingency Lunar Sample Return Decontamination Bag” on the Apollo 11 Stowage List.
What’s more, NASA didn’t want to give the bag back to Carlson. NPR reported, “NASA said it was a national treasure that ‘belongs to the American people and should be on display for the public.’ The item should never have been sold to an individual, the agency argued.”
On the other hand, in fact it had been lent to one individual, misidentified, subsequently offered at auction several times to others, and finally bought by another person, fair and square.
In February 2017, U.S. District Judge J. Thomas Marten ruled in Carlson’s favor. The bag, he reasoned, should never have been put up for sale; however, given that it had been, he had no recourse to reverse the transaction.
With legal ownership in the bag, so to speak, and, one suspects, grieved by all the hubbub, Carlson felt nervous about keeping such a special artifact and decided to sell it through a Sotheby’s Auction.
As described by Sotheby’s, the bag was “Used by Neil Armstrong on Apollo 11 to Bring Back the Very First Pieces of the Moon Ever Collected—Traces of Which Remain in the Bag. The Only Such Relic Available for Private Ownership. Estimate $2,000,000–$4,000.000.” In fact, the bag fetched a total of $1,812,500 in its July 20, 2017, sale; Nancy Carlson’s share, around $1.5 million; the rest, Sotheby’s buyer’s premium.
As is the company’s custom, Sotheby’s declined to name the buyer. However, he or she is known to be an American, and there’s hope that the artifact might be lent to a public institution.
Nancy Carlson plans to use part of her $1.5 million to fund several charities, including the Immune Deficiency Foundation and the Bay Cliff Health Camp Children’s Therapy and Wellness Center. She is also establishing a scholarship for students of speech pathology at her alma mater, Northern Michigan University, in Marquette, Michigan.
An excellent account of the tale, including a brief moon video, is offered at sothebys.com. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2017