A bag of moon dust was just sold at Sotheby’s for $1.8 million, after it was forgotten in a museum basement then taken to court.
The cloth bag, measuring about the size of a notebook, traveled to the moon and came back with lunar samples on it from the historic Apollo 11 mission, NPR reports. It hit the Sotheby auction block after Nancy Carlson, who originally purchased it for less than $1,000, put it up for sale.
The collection bag was used by Neil Armstrong to gather samples during the world’s first successful moon landing in 1969. While most of the artifacts from the famous mission are now held in the Smithsonian museum, the bag somehow got separated from the rest, and its significance went unnoticed.
It ended up in the garage of Max Ary, the former director of a space museum in Hutchinson, Kansas. According to the Kansas City Star, the Cosmophere museum had “a wealth of space travel artifacts” but was a mess. “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,” the report stated.
Ary then began selling artifacts from his own collection, along with items belonging to the museum and NASA. He was convicted of theft, fraud and money laundering. The US government seized his space collectables and sold them to pay for his fines.
Nancy Carlson of Inverness, Illinois, saw the bad listed as one of the items for sales, described as “flown zippered lunar sample return bag with lunar dust. 11.5 [inches]. Tear at Center. Flown Mission Unknown.”
The initial bid was for $20,000, but no one was buying, so Carlson won it for $995 in 2015.
Carlson then sent the bag to the Johnson Space Center for testing to see if it did contain lunar dust. The answer was affirmative, and the staff at NASA realized that it was not just any sample, but taken from the Apollo 11 mission.
NASA didn’t want to give the bag back, so Carlson went to court. She argued that she bought the bag fairly, and a judge ruled that while it should not have been sold, he did not have the authority to reverse the sale.
Carlson got the bag back, and sold it to the highest bidder. She now intends to use parts of the proceeds for medical research and charities, and to set up a scholarship fund.