A small, polyester bag that made its way from Earth to the moon to a museum basement and through a future convict’s garage was set for the auction block Thursday seeking multimillion-dollar bids.
The “lunar sample return” bag that tagged along during the first manned landing on the moon with Apollo 11 astronauts in 1969 was set for auction by Sotheby’s, which estimated its value between $2 million and $4 million.
It had once been kept, and went unnoticed, by the Cosmosphere and Space Center in Hutchinson, Kan. Later, the moonshot relic was discovered among other space artifacts in boxes stored in the garage of its onetime director, Max Ary.
Ary would later serve two years in prison for auctioning off items that were shown to belong to the museum — an institution that still credits him for building its world-class space exploration collection.
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About two years ago, a real estate attorney and rock collector from Illinois bought the bag, which has dust and tiny rocks from the moon encrusted in its fabric, at an auction by the U.S. Marshal’s Service.
The marshals were unaware at the time that the bag had actually flown on the historic moon mission, and Nancy Lee Carlson was the only bidder. She paid $995.
Carlson later sent the bag — says Sotheby’s: “12 by 8 1/2 inches, white Beta-cloth and polyester with rubberized nylon and brass zipper closure” — to the Johnson Space Center in Houston to verify that it had gone to the moon.
NASA then attempted to keep the bag, but Carlson won a court ruling in December that she’d made an honest purchase and was entitled to ownership.
Neil Armstrong, the first human to plod on the moon, stuck the purse-like pouch in a pocket of his spacesuit and used it to hold rocks he plucked from near where the Eagle lunar module touched down.
Sotheby’s has touted the bag as “the most important space artifact to ever appear at auction.”
“The bag that was used to bring back to Earth the very first sample of lunar material ever collected,” the auction house said in a news release.
A Sotheby’s spokesman said the bidding on the bag was expected to begin about 2:30 p.m. Eastern time in New York (1:30 p.m. Central) and that because the price was expected to run so high, it had asked for “financial references” from potential buyers.
In the court fight over whether Carlson could get the bag back from NASA, the government described the bag as “a rare artifact, if not a national treasure.”
Exactly how the bag ended up winding its way through Kansas, and then the courts, is a mystery created by imperfect record-keeping at NASA, the Smithsonian Institution and the Cosmosphere.
By most accounts, the Smithsonian had more items than it could use at the National Air and Space Museum. So in the late 1970s and early 1980s, it began shipping loosely organized boxes to the Cosmosphere, likely with the lunar sample bag included but not singled out as anything of particular value.
While the Hutchinson museum was raising money to pay for restoration of a Gemini capsule, it began selling off some of its non-displayed collection. Ary was selling some of his collection during the same period. By Ary’s account, the Cosmosphere had accidentally mingled the two collections.
The bag didn’t get sold in that period, but somehow migrated to Ary’s garage — later to be auctioned by the federal government to gain restitution in Ary’s case.
Even when investigators initially discovered the bag, they didn’t understand what they’d found. They thought it came from the 1972 Apollo 17 lunar landing and had never carried lunar rocks.
Carlson, the real estate attorney who took her find to Sotheby’s, told The Wall Street Journal earlier this year that she hopes to use some proceeds from the auction to fund scientific and medical research. “That’s why we started the space program,” she told the newspaper. “We wanted to go beyond.”
Cosmosphere officials have said that if they’d realized they had the moon bag, they’d have kept it for display alongside the museum’s Apollo 11 moon rock.