There’s nothing quite like the golden anniversary of one of humanity’s greatest accomplishments to encourage sellers to part with their historic collectors’ items — and inspire scam artists to get creative.
After all, what space enthusiast wouldn’t like a piece of Apollo 11 history, especially now that everyone is talking about it? That demand is fuelling a spike in the number of people seeking to meet it, either with authentic pieces or with carefully crafted fakes, and for the same hefty price tag.
A cursory search for Apollo 11 on eBay will draw up hundreds of results. There’s Neil Armstrong’s autograph on a moon landing photo, on his astronaut photo, on a magazine cover, a dollar bill, an index card. You can get a Buzz Aldrin-signed baseball or a copy of Mike Collins’ book, Carrying the Fire, autographed by the astronaut.
But how to tell if they’re fake? That’s the rub, said Steve Zarelli, one of the nation’s go-to experts on astronaut autographs and memorabilia. As the 50th anniversary of the moon landing approaches on July 20, buyers will have to ask themselves that question often, he said.
“As the event gets more media attention, then that drives people who in the emotion of the minute, they may want something this is connected to it,” said Steve Zarelli, owner of New York-based Zarelli Space Authentication. “It drives impulse buyers.”
The problem is so acute now that Zarelli said he’s noticed a steep spike in the number of Apollo 11 items for sale, many of them knockoffs.
“I would say the number of fakes I’m seeing is at least double the typical number you would see,” Zarelli said. “ … (Forgers) are making money off of persons just browsing on eBay and saying, ‘Oh look this would be cool to have.’ ”
Locally, faked Apollo 11 items have “definitely” cropped up, said Charles Jeffrey, collections analyst and a member of the board at the American Space Museum and Space Walk of Fame in Titusville.
“I can show you half a dozen items up on eBay right now that if not outright fakes, have such questionable provenance that they are more than likely fakes,” Jeffrey said. “It’s a true buyer beware site.”
But it’s not just eBay. Fraudulent items have popped up at auction houses and Craigslist and garage sales. And some are more difficult to spot than others.
The astronauts have certain signing habits that are well-documented. Neil Armstrong didn’t sign on top of the American flag on the arm of his spacesuit in photos, for example, and he stopped giving autographs altogether in the 1990s.
His autographs with personal messages can run around $1,000 to $2,000 and his autographs alone — those not signed to a particular person — cost between about $3,500 and $4,000, Zarelli said. Any less or higher than that range, and you may be dealing with a fake.
But hardware, pieces of spacecraft and items that were allegedly flown to the moon are more difficult to verify. It’s not hard to find sellers claiming to offer tiny pieces of Kapton foil that covered the Apollo 11 command module or flags flown to the moon by astronauts, but it is near impossible to prove if the pieces actually went to space — unless you specifically know the seller.
Knowing your source comes in handy for fake mission patches, too. Tim Gagnon, a patch artist based in Titusville, said a forger on eBay made a copy of one of his patches and listed it using Gagnon’s name to pass the Apollo 16 commemorative patch as authentic.
After he filed a complaint with eBay, the patch was removed.
For the patches, he said, anything that’s not manufactured by A-B Emblem out of Weaverville, North Carolina and its partners, is not the real thing. The company has held the exclusive Nasa contract for patches since February 1970. The patches run for $8 to $30, depending on the size, said A-B Emblem’s national accounts manager Sandy McDonald.
The proliferation of scammers trying to profit off the Apollo 11 craze has affected even legitimate sellers of items, such as Kissimmee’s Gregg Newton, who has been approached by a number of buyers trying to snatch up his astronaut signed artwork by offering to pay through fake wire transfers.
Newton is a longtime collector of astronaut signatures and owns pieces with the autographs of all 12 moonwalkers. He’s selling a 1989 lithograph with the signatures of Armstrong, first American in space Alan Shepard, first American in orbit John Glenn, Apollo 10 and 17’s Gene Cernan, Apollo 7’s Wally Schirra, Apollo 12’s Charles Conrad, Apollo 8 and 13’s James Lovell, and space shuttle astronauts Jack Lousma and Rick Hauck.
It’s going for $3,850.
“2019 marks the 50th anniversary of the first historic moon landing, and this is a unique way to obtain an unquestioned, undisputed autograph of Neil Armstrong!” Newton wrote in the listing on Craigslist. The piece was confirmed authentic by Zarelli.
The former Reuters photographer plans to use the revenue from the sale to help pay for his son, Luca Newton’s, tuition at the Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne where he is double majoring in global conflict studies and homeland security.
They’ve talked it over, Newton said, and decided that selling nearly all of his 19 pieces will help get the incoming junior through college without debt.
But there is one piece that even the draw of the 50th anniversary won’t compel Newton to sell: An image taken by him in 1998 when John Glenn returned to space on a space shuttle mission. At 77, Glenn became the oldest human to fly to space.
That day, Newton waded into the ocean at Cocoa Beach with an unprotected film camera and caught the rocket as it arched over the waves. In the photo, two young surfers in the water look up as the white plumes of smoke cross the sky. It was the 30th frame in a roll of 36.
The image ran in dozens of newspapers across the nation the next day. Newsweek, Time and LIFE ran it on two pages.
Newton sent copies to Glenn, who autographed it in 2003, “To Gregg, with best regards, John Glenn.”
It’s the “one print I am holding on to,” Newton said, “and passing on to my son.” —The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Florida)/TNS