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February 10, 2007

World's Most Expensive M&M


It's a brown one (they're no longer made, but no matter) that left the Earth's atmosphere on June 21, 2004 aboard the first flight of Paul Allen's SpaceShipOne.

It recently sold for $1,500.

"Melts in your mouth, not on re-entry," would be a good tag line, what?

I learned this bit of M&M arcana, along with many other interesting facts, by reading Dionne Searcey's article in today's Wall Street Journal about how going into space — especially to the moon — can multiply the value of ordinary objects many, many times over.

Consider the toothbrush (top) used by astronaut Buzz Aldrin during the Apollo 11 mission: Steven Belasco, a retired Scarsdale, New York lawyer, paid $23,000 for it.

Here's the story.

    Fly Me to the Moon, Where I Can Make A Buck, or Two

    Astronaut's Arrest Boosts Market for Space Junk; Purist Collectors Shudder

    When news broke about the arrest of astronaut Capt. Lisa Nowak for attempted murder, Internet auction sites started humming. "Hi space collectors!" reads Marci Halverson's eBay pitch. Ms. Halverson and her sister, who usually sell purses and shoes online, are hawking a July 18 Houston Chronicle with Capt. Nowak's signature.

    Also up for grabs from other sellers: DVDs of Capt. Nowak's news conferences, a snow globe containing her photo and autographed items from another astronaut who was part of the love triangle.

    All this makes Robert Pearlman unhappy. The founder of Collectspace.com, a Web site for space enthusiasts, decries the opportunism. "Most collectors feel this is very distasteful and goes against the reason why people collect space memorabilia — to pay tribute to the people who make space exploration possible."

    Space memorabilia is a serious business. Top auction houses including Sotheby's and Christie's sell items. And within this small but passionate community, there's a nasty split between the purists and the speculators.

    Ms. Halverson says her offer was tasteful. "We took the high road," she says. "Our auction has regular NASA items in it," including a "NASA navy brief bag tote with zipper top" and three NASA antenna balls "for your car and your friends!" The items, which are being sold as a single lot, are currently going for $150.

    For serious collectors, the hottest commodities are artifacts that have left the earth's atmosphere, dubbed "flown." Those that have flown to the surface of the moon are considered the Holy Grail.

    Steven Belasco, a retired Scarsdale, N.Y., lawyer, says he paid $23,000 for a flown toothbrush that astronaut Buzz Aldrin used during the Apollo 11 mission. He paid $26,000 for a flown flashlight and cord that plugged into a module that landed on the moon with Apollo 15.

    "People to this day are amazed that I would pay this much," says Mr. Belasco.

    Demand for memorabilia has spiked ever since billionaires started dabbling in private space travel and the Chinese government became interested in space. Aurora Auctions, of Bell Canyon, Calif., recently sold a brown M&M that left the Earth's atmosphere in 2004 aboard the Paul Allen-financed SpaceShipOne. It went for $1,500.

    "It was flown on the very first mission," says Victoria Campbell, Aurora's founder and chief executive. "That's very important."

    Serious collectors look askance at the recent eBay items — purists call them "spectacles," not "collectibles." But their own interests can verge on tacky. Items related to the 1986 Challenger disaster and the 1967 Apollo 1 fire are highly valued. An autograph of teacher Christa McAuliffe, who was on board the Challenger flight, can fetch up to $1,000.

    Aurora recently sold for $1,100 papers relating to a urine measuring system that tracked astronauts' body functions on a 1960s Gemini mission. "Excellent condition," read the description. "Answers those delicate questions."

    Jim Newman, an astronaut who flew on a 2002 mission to fix the Hubble telescope, floods the market with his signature to make sure demand never gets out of hand. But he doesn't pass judgment on collectors.

    Neil Armstrong wrote "Go to Descent" on a checklist used during preparations for the moon landing on the Apollo 11 mission. Mr. Belasco says he paid $23,000 for the notecard.

    "It's very important to acknowledge there are collectors of things in the world," he says. "When there is no one left who collects things about space flight, that's because space flight is no longer important."

    Every item aboard a space mission is meticulously catalogued. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration offers the Smithsonian Institution first dibs. Leftovers have been sold at government auctions. NASA disposes of the rest. (The agency was once scolded by enthusiasts who learned of plans to get rid of dozens of shuttle tires, says spokesman Allard Beutel. The agency instead donated some to children's museums.)

    NASA says employees are prohibited from selling space items, aside from those received as gifts or awards. Astronauts can sell their signatures after they retire. Many give away medallions, pens or flags they took into space. Those objects often end up in auctions.

    Some astronauts are dismissive of collectors, even if they're purists. Moon-walker Neil Armstrong won't sign autographs anymore because of what he considers the crazy prices they fetch, according to James Hansen, Mr. Armstrong's official biographer.

    Capt. Nowak is facing charges for the attempted murder of a female Air Force captain who she thought was competing for the affections of a male astronaut. Police say Capt. Nowak confronted the woman in a Florida parking lot and attacked her with pepper spray. She also carried a BB gun, a steel mallet, a knife, rubber tubing, latex gloves and garbage bags.

    Leo Walters is an online retailer based in Delano, Pa., who often sells photos of people in the news. After news broke, he started peddling unsigned photos of Capt. Nowak. He won't say where they came from. "I'm an opportunist," says Mr. Walters. "That's the only way to put it."

    Auctioneers say it's too soon for many flown artifacts from Capt. Nowak's July mission to make their way onto the market. Besides, sniff die-hard collectors, Capt. Nowak's isn't important enough to sustain interest in her stuff.

    "She's not, from the standpoint of a historical perspective, a significant role-player," says Scott Schneeweis, a Sierra Vista, Ariz., space collector. Insignias marking her shuttle mission were popular at its launch, but interest waned after the crew returned.

    In recent years, collectors say, Capt. Nowak was stingy answering fan mail requesting her signature. Given recent events, space buffs could be left with holes in their collection. One photo signed by her for sale on eBay is currently hovering around the $10,000 mark.

    Dennis Alloy, of Tyson's Corner, Va., who was friends with Capt. Nowak in high school, says he's saddened by the recent interest. "Things should be valuable just because they're related to a role model, not to a participant in something like this." A representative for Ms. Nowak's family declines to comment.

    Alan Bean, the fourth astronaut to walk on the moon, says trading on tragedy might be distasteful, but doesn't really hurt anyone. "It's business," says Mr. Bean, a member of NASA's Apollo program. "Isn't that the American free-enterprise dream, to buy something low and sell high?"


FunFact: Van Halen refused to perform unless all the brown M&Ms were removed from the giant bowls of the candy that were contractually mandated backstage at each concert venue.

February 10, 2007 at 04:01 PM | Permalink


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Hi Joe,

RE: your FunFact

From Wikipedia - "The band's demands were not limited to technical issues: their now infamous contract rider specified that, among other personal needs, a bowl of M&M candies, with all of the brown ones removed, was to be available in the band's dressing room. According to David Lee Roth (from his autobiography, Crazy from the Heat), this was not due to an antipathy for brown chocolate candy, but rather was listed with the technical portion of the contract in order to check up on whether venue management and technical staff were correctly reading through, checking, and honoring the technical and safety provisions set in the contract. On arrival, if brown M&M's were found in the dressing room, then the band had reason to believe other parts of the contract were also not being fulfilled, and subsequently, every line of the contract was to be double-checked, to ensure safety prior to and during the show. Some shows were cancelled because of a venue's inability to handle the band's stage or equipment safely."

When viewed from that perspective, it's genius!



Posted by: Uncle Jake | Feb 13, 2007 5:05:18 AM

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