Do You Remember the 1993 Soviet Space Auction?
Written by Andy Rowlands
In December 1993, London-based auctioneers Sotheby’s held a unique auction. Going under the hammer were no less than various items of Soviet space hardware from the 1960’s to the then present. Sotheby’s valuers had the somewhat onerous job of deciding prices for artifacts for which there were no precedents from previous sales.
It was an extraordinarily difficult task. Two of the auction house’s most respected ‘high-flyers’ had managed to persuade the rich (although some said gullible) to dig deep into their pockets to bid for the leftovers from the Soviet manned space program.
A year previously, on December 21, 1992, representatives of Sotheby’s traveled to Star City in the Soviet Union, where the likes of Yuri Gagarin and Alexei Leonov lived and trained and astounded the world in the 1960’s. The trip was the result of three years patient negotiations with the heroes of yesteryear and their families. As rumours spread about the visit, veteran cosmonauts, many desperate for hard currency, decided to offer memorabilia from their own space missions.
A further visit from Sotheby’s was arranged to the Cosmonauts Compound in Moskva to allow the valuers time to examine the artifacts being offered up for sale. Unlike US astronauts, the Soviet cosmonauts have always been allowed to keep mementos of their flights, and these were now brought out for the valuers to examine. Many were small items like skull-caps and gloves, even one of the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz Test Project spacesuits ( as seen, right).
The widow of Viktor Patsayev brought the camera he used on the ill-fated 1971 Soyuz 11 mission to the world’s first space station – Salyut 1. Patsayev perished on June 30th along with Georgy Dobrovolsky and Vladislav Volkov when an air valve that should have opened only after re-entry, opened while the Soyuz craft was still outside Earth’s atmosphere.
Below is an image from that camera inside Soyuz 11. Patsayev is on the upper left.
The Soviet cosmonauts had accepted that the auctioneers would take their usual ten percent commission, plus a further two percent for the various insurances involved in auctions, but Sotheby’s had also engaged the services of Texas based ‘space consultant’ Arthur Doula, who was also expecting a commission.
When this was announced, a meeting was hastily called, with many of those wishing to sell present. The cosmonauts were extremely unhappy with the situation when Art Doula refused to disclose what percentage he expected as his commission.
The Soviets were naturally incredulous at this and it took some fast-talking by the Sotheby’s representatives to stop the Soviets walking away there and then.
With the Russians eventually placated, arrangements were begun to transport their items to America for the auction to be held in December 1993. New York was chosen as the best place for the auction, as space activities have always enjoyed a much higher profile there than in the UK.
Lot by lot, the artifacts told the story of the Soviet manned space program, its failures and successes. The auction took place on December 22nd.
One of the most unusual items offered was the mannequin ‘Ivan Ivanovich’, which was a life-sized dummy flown aboard Sputnik 10 in March 1961, as the final preparatory mission for Yuri Gagarin’s flight. Ivan is seen below in this image taken at the auction.
Within three weeks of Ivanovich’s flight, Gagarin flew aboard Vostok 1 and into history. For his daring and bravery, Khrushchev decorated him a Hero of the Soviet Union. Perhaps not surprisingly, Ivanovich, valued at $200,000 – $250,000, only made $170,000.
Lot four was the wristwatch made especially for Yuri Gagarin that he wore on that first historic flight on 12th April 1961, with its second hand in the shape of a rocket. Valued at between $5,000 and $7,000, it was bought by a British man for $32,500.
Perhaps surprisingly, Gagarin’s training suit only just reached its reserve price of $100,000 and was withdrawn from the sale.
It was the smaller items that did spectacularly well, with the larger items deliberately left until the end of the auction. The first letter ‘delivered’ in space, by Alexei Yelisayev and Yevgheni Khrunov in Soyuz 4 to Vladimir Shatalov and Boris Volynov aboard Soyuz 5, via an EVA between the two craft in January 1969 was estimated at $12,000 – $18,000.
With Shatalov in attendance, the letter fetched an astonishing $110,000 from an Italian phone bidder. Lot nine was three small lumps of Moon rock, brought back to Earth by Luna 16 in 1970. Estimated at between $30,000 and $50,000, they fetched $400,000 to an unnamed US buyer.
A batch of notes made by a Soviet engineer involved in designing the Mir spacestation made over $100,000.
Lot 11 was Yuri Gagarin’s handwritten letter accepting his selection to be the first man in space. It belonged to his widow Valentina, and she stood to make 90% of the sale value; 10% more than most of the other consignors, out of respect for his achievements. Estimated at between $20,000 and $30,000, it made $110,000 to an unnamed US buyer.
Valentina also offered for sale Khrushchev’s letter of congratulation to her on the success of Gagarin’s flight. It fetched $60,000. A Japanese buyer bought Gagarin’s pipe, watch and his Air Force uniform for $30,000. In all, Valentina Gagarin took home with her a cool quarter of a million dollars.
Possibly the most poignant item offered was a Cosmonaut’s EVA suit that would have been worn on the Moon missions had they ever taken place. When Apollo XI landed Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin in the Sea of Tranquility in July 1969, The USSR denied it had ever had a manned lunar programme.
The EVA suit that officially never existed failed to reach either the Moon or its reserve value and was withdrawn from the auction.
Lot 40 was the spacesuit worn by Alexei Leonov aboard Voshkod 2 on March 18th, 1965, when he made the world’s first spacewalk, taking him into the history books and making him a Hero of the Soviet Union. That first spacewalk almost ended in disaster when a problem with the suit becoming over-inflated prevented him from re-entering the airlock, and he had to manually deflate it to return to the relative safety of the capsule.
The image below is a still from Leonov’s historic spacewalk.
He and fellow Cosmonaut Pavel Belyayev then suffered the ignominity of having to spend the night shut inside their capsule after a malfunction meant it landed 600 miles away from their intended location. 28 years later,
Leonov was the guest of honour at the auction, where he witnessed his Voshkod spacesuit, valued at between $80,000 – $120,000, fetch a staggering $230,000 from the same unnamed US buyer who bought the mannequin Ivanovich.
Leonov commented that while it was a shame the economic situation in his country had made this sale of an important part of their heritage necessary, he was also glad that people in other countries would now be able to see first-hand some of the Soviet Union’s greatest achievements.
The image below shows Leonov and our very own literary giant Arthur Clarke looking at possible future spacecraft designs in Vienna in 1968.
However, the ‘prize lot’ was no less than the Soyuz TM10 capsule (seen below), which flew in August 1990, with its less than reassuring warning in Cyrillic and English (rendered almost invisible after re-entry) of how to open the hatch to rescue ‘trapped’ Cosmonauts.
Estimated at between $3-$5 million, it surprisingly fetched just $1.5 million to an unnamed American buyer.
What must be the oddest item ever offered for sale by auction was the unmanned probe Luna 21, which landed on the Moon on 15th December 1973, carrying the second Soviet lunar rover; Lunokhod 2, which operated for four months.
Sotheby’s decided not to put a reserve price on Luna 21, as it could never be touched by any purchaser. Instead, they left the bidding open, to see what it might fetch. It was sold to an unnamed telephone bidder for $68,500. Below is a depiction of the Luna 21 lander (top) and the actual Lunokhod 2 (bottom).
The buyer was later revealed to be computer gaming entrepreneur Richard Garriott (son of the US astronaut Owen Garriott), who stated in a 2001 interview with Computer Games magazine:
“I purchased Lunokhod 21 from the Russians. I am now the world’s only private owner of an object on a foreign celestial body. Though there are international treaties that say no government shall lay claim to geography off planet earth, I am not a government. Summarily, I claim the moon in the name of Lord British!”
Lord British is a pseudonym he uses in computer gaming.
The total sale value of the items at the auction was $6,817,198, almost two million dollars more than Sotheby’s had expected. It made them a substantial amount in commissions, and was able to give some of the Soviets some small financial comfort in the increasingly difficult economic situation in the USSR.
Since then, memorabilia of all types, from old motorcycles to baseball cards and even animation cells from Disney cartoons have all fetched astonishing prices, and put memorabilia firmly on the ‘wanted’ list.
I am indebted to Rob & Jill Wood for the identification and correct spelling of the Soviet names.
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