Space memorabilia is one of the fastest growing areas of collecting. While the market has matured over the past decade, there are still opportunities for buyers to turn an interest in the period into a potential nest egg.
Information on the subject can be tricky for newcomers to understand.
My aim here is to provide you with a solid foundation to successfully invest in space memorabilia.
The most valuable items of space memorabilia today are those connected with NASA’s Apollo programme, which successfully landed the first man on the Moon in 1969.
Apollo 11 was a 'flashbulb' moment (Image: Wikimedia Commons)
Below this top tier, collectors tend to focus on astronauts involved with the early years of space exploration – the US Mercury, Skylab, Gemini and Apollo-Soyuz programmes. That's just 42 astronauts in total that draw the majority of collectors’ attention.
Russian Cosmonaut memorabilia remains relatively affordable due to a limited customer base in the west, where the majority of these artefacts are sold. However, a newly wealthy Russian middle class (and rising interest among westerners) is increasingly driving up prices for names like Yuri Gagarin and Alexei Leonov.
The key principle when buying memorabilia for investment purposes is to focus on major early events, as these will have the broadest appeal. Space memorabilia is unusual in that the “firsts” (first man in space, first woman in space and so on) all took place within living memory, so there are lots of opportunities to own a meaningful piece of the story.
Most of the pioneers of the space race have died. The survivors are now in their late 80s. Many have stopped signing autographs and all (the famously garrulous Buzz Aldrin included) are now attending fewer conventions and public events.
Complete sets of Apollo 11 signatures have broad appeal
Competition is fierce for quality signatures, with complete in-period sets of signed photos from the Apollo 11 crew selling for an average of £15,000.
When it comes to single signers, Neil Armstrong is at the top of the market. In fact, his is one of the most valuable autographs of all time. An Armstrong signed photo is worth an average of £10,000.
That’s not just because Armstrong was one of the greatest icons of the 20th century. Rarity is another factor. Armstrong tapered off his signing over time and ceased completely in 1993, in protest at the burgeoning market for his autograph.
The structure of NASA’s space programme makes collecting sets of autographs popular. Many collectors aspire to a complete set of Moonwalkers or Apollo astronauts, while others go for the 42 signers making up the organisation’s early roster.
In September 2012, the US government introduced a bill giving former NASA astronauts full rights of ownership over memorabilia they’d collected during their careers.
Neil Armstrong filled this bag with lunar samples (Image: Sotheby's)
Prior to this, it had been difficult for astronauts to sell. And NASA is notoriously litigious when it comes to reclaiming items it considers property. The past decade has been an exciting time to be a collector of space memorabilia, with some major pieces coming to auction from the personal collections of astronauts and their families.
When it comes to memorabilia, so-called “flown” artefacts achieve the top results. These are items that the astronauts carried into space, including various medals and commemorative items that were sold as souvenirs.
Robbins medals are named for their manufacturer, the Robbins Company of Addlebourgh, Massachussets. Most were minted in sterling silver and typically sell for tens of thousands of dollars. In 2019 a rare 14k gold specimen Neil Armstrong carried in his personal kit realised $2m.
Mission-used artefacts are also hugely popular. In 2017, one buyer paid $1.8m for the bag Armstrong used to collect samples of rock from the lunar surface. The estimate was as high as $4m.
This is a market finding its feet, so purchasing a high-quality item now has the potential to pay off handsomely over the next 10 years. If I can leave you with one lasting piece of advice, it’s to buy what you love but always buy the best you can afford.
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