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The space auction where a Sputnik model goes for $269,000

Meet the 'space generation' of collectors, who mostly wear beige

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Amelia Holowaty Krales

For only $269,000, you can buy a full-scale model of the Sputnik-1 satellite, made by the USSR to test the very first satellite humans launched into space. It’s still operational, with live transmitters, 59 years later. On the catalog of the Bonhams auction house in midtown Manhattan, where the Space History Sale took place on Wednesday, the estimated price is $10,000 to $15,000. But in no time, the price is flying higher than Sputnik did.

“13. 15. 16. 17. 18. 19!” shouts auctioneer Tim McNab. He looks like the bouncer of a high-end nightclub in Miami Beach: suntanned, in a blue suit and sunglasses with orange-tinted lenses, even though we’re in an underground room. “Still bidding. On the books!”

The room is filled with space artifacts, in glass cases or hanging from the walls: a control panel from the space station MIR, an 86-inch tall Saturn V flight configuration chart, a NASA flight simulator chair, a camera ring sight used by James Irwin on the Moon during Apollo 15, and countless photos and emblems signed by Buzz Aldrin. Really valuable items are the ones that have the word "flown" in the description — meaning they actually flew in space. The word "first" is also one that brings big bucks.

mostly white men with white and gray hair and beige garments

In the middle of the room, about 30 people — mostly white men with white and gray hair and beige garments — sit on suede chairs. Sneakers and leather moccasins are the shoes of choice. If their wives are with them, these ladies never hold the paddle or make a bid. A constant hubbub comes from the left, where two rows of Bonhams employees hold the phone in one hand, the paddle in the other — to convey bids from buyers on the phone. Next to McNab, a woman takes online bids. And to the right, a screen shows the price roll up incessantly in six currencies — dollar up top.

In a matter of minutes, the bid for the 100-pound Sputnik reaches over 20 times the estimated price. For $269,000, bidder number 4018 on the phone wins it. McNab slams his white hammer on the podium. But one bidder ain’t impressed.

The 91-year-old retired architect sitting in the second row — sporting, yes, a beige jacket and matching beige pants — owns something much more valuable. That would be a piece of the rocket that brought the real Sputnik to space — estimated to cost $35 million to $69 million now, or so he says. He declined to give his name for this article, preferring to identify himself as follows: "I am a collector of space."

"I'm a collector of space."

His passion began in 1957, when the Sputnik was launched, beating the US and kicking off the space race. He was in his early 20s then and working at the Rockefeller Center. On October 4th, 1957, he remembers leaving work and seeing in the newspapers that the Soviet Union had launched the first satellite to space. On the subway ride back to Forest Hill, where he lived, he started thinking that this was "the most fantastic thing" man had ever done. "I have to start collecting," he thought. "This is history."

Thirty-nine years later, in 1996, he bought his piece of history, the metal from the Sputnik rocket, at a Christie’s auction. "It was one of the happiest days of my life," he says, smiling, the wrinkles in his face closing on his gray eyes. If you saw him like this on the street, with scruffy white hair, a cane, and a cardboard envelope filled with papers and a copy of the New York Post, you wouldn’t give him the time of day. But here he is, at a high-end auction house to buy a vintage color photograph of the Earthrise seen from the Moon, taken during the Apollo 8 mission, and signed by the crew. The photo ended up selling for $1,750 — not to him, but to a phone buyer.

In fact, most of the bids come from the phone or online. It’s almost impossible to figure out when someone in the room is making a bid, because they do so very surreptitiously. Sometimes, people wink or scratch their nose to the auctioneer, Cassandra Hatton, who organized the Bonhams auction, tells me. Sometimes, they raise the paddle just a bit. And the only indication that someone in the room is going for an object is the auctioneer’s call: "It’s back here! It’s back in the room!"

Number 2993 spent more than $220,000 during the five-hour auction

That’s true for everyone, except bidder number 2993, who sits on the right and raises his paddle too often to go unnoticed. During the five-hour auction, he spent more than $220,000, including $110,000 for a flown Apollo 11 emblem that belonged to Michael Collins and $40,000 for a 5-by-8-inch flown Apollo 11 checklist sheet that was taken to the lunar surface. He’s tall, with a beige jacket, sparsely gray hair, the demeanor of a snobby butler. When I try to talk to him, he just says "No, no" and walks away, returning to his suede seat. Fellow bidders look at him as he raises the paddle without hesitation, nonchalantly adding $1,000 more to the price with every gesture. "Congratulations!" one whispers as number 2993 secures for himself another win.

The man offering congratulations is Nathan, a 59-year-old retired attorney who wears a purple button-up, Versace jeans, and fuchsia suede shoes. He has heart problems, so he’s accompanied by a black-and-white curly-haired poodle — a service dog that he says is "more trained than most people’s children." In all fairness, the poodle stood still for the entire auction, going for a pee break only once. Nathan, who didn’t give me his last name, has been collecting astronauts’ autographs, space memorabilia, and meteorites since he was a kid. (He wears a 4.5-billion-year-old meteorite made of nickel and iron around his neck.) "I’m the space generation," he says. "This defines me."

He remembers watching the Moon landing in 1969, when he was a teenager — "the greatest achievement of our species," as he calls it. That’s why he bought a launch checklist used in training for Apollo 11 for $812 and an Apollo 11 technical manual for $625. Yet he wonders why no young people were at the auction. "I don’t know if the millennials have appreciation," he says. Nathan, be fair: most of us just don’t have the money.

"I'm the space generation. This defines me."

But Nathan’s not alone in feeling defined by being a part of the space generation; that also defines Dan Record, a 67-year-old physics instructor who of course looks exactly like Albert Einstein, with unruly white hair and mustache. (He is wearing beige pants.) Record has been collecting Apollo missions’ memorabilia for 25 years, after being mesmerized by the Moon landing when he was a kid. On his wedding day, on August 7th, 1971, he and his wife listened to the return of the Apollo 15 astronauts on the radio. And his car’s plate reads LRV001, the same plate as the lunar rover. His favorite object in his collection is a pair of hand cutters used by Alan Bean during the Apollo 12 mission. The cutters fell on the Moon’s surface. (Unfortunately, no lunar dust remains.)

At the auction, he bought a Lunar Module window protector for $10,000 and an Apollo command module helium pressure regulator for $625. "It’s very technical, that’s why I like it," he says excitedly.

More than 280 items were for sale at Bonhams; all told, they racked up a combined total of $1,315,063. Among the most expensive items was a set of 15 gold-colored plaster casts of the right hand of 15 NASA astronauts, including those of Neil Armstrong and the ubiquitous Buzz Aldrin. The casts, which sold for $155,000, were used to make perfectly fitting space suit gloves in 1967. A flown space suit worn in 2003 by Don Pettit aboard the Soyuz TMA-1, following the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster, sold for $62,500.

the plaster hands of 15 nasa astronauts sold for $155,000

At the end of the day, after five hours of endless bidding, only around 10 people remained in the room. After bidder 2993 left, the room was quiet. The only one who seemed to keep his energy up was the second auctioneer, Rupert Banner, who had replaced the first. With his British accent, black suit, and light green tie, he looked like a spy from a James Bond movie. He kept adding "only" at the end of the every figure launched at him. "$600 only?" "18 only?" "32 only?" The last item at sale — three silver robbins medallions for the last three missions before the Challenger disaster — went to an old couple in the room for $2,500. And that was it.

"Thanks for joining us to today’s sale," Banner said. "Good evening."

Photography by Amelia Holowaty Krales

Space auction