Fancy bidding on a Christmas present steeped in science history? Find out what they’ll set you back, and which present-day artefacts might be worth investing in
18 December 2019
IN 1976, a NASA intern named Gary George attended a government surplus auction in Houston, Texas. He was hopelessly outbid for a special agent’s car, a souped-up Porsche 911. But he did shell out $218 for three truckloads of NASA film reels, more than enough to fill his bemused parents’ garage, in the hope that they could earn him some beer money.
He sold some and trashed others, donating what remained to a local church. But George followed his father’s advice and kept three reels labelled “Apollo 11 EVA”, figuring they might be worth something one day. He wasn’t wrong. Earlier this year, on the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, the tapes – the clearest known NASA recordings of the first moonwalk – sold for $1.8 million in New York.
George was lucky. But he isn’t the only person to have taken advantage of a recent boom in interest in scientific items at auction. These days, obscure scientific ephemera have become high-grossing, headline-grabbing lots at the world’s largest auction houses.
From fragments of a bible once flown to the moon and now ensconced in a Fabergé egg (over £8000), to Alan Turing’s forgotten manuscripts, rescued from a locked desk ($1,025,000), long-neglected scientific curios are on their way to becoming the new Picassos and O’Keeffes (see “Science for sale”).
So what sells? And how can you, the science-savvy investor, find tomorrow’s treasures amid the uninspiring academic flotsam of today?
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For a long time, scientific items paled in comparison to the paintings and …