Books & Manuscripts

Returned to Earth by the Soviet Luna-16 Mission in 1970, the Only Known Documented Moon Rocks in Private Hands Come to Auction

By Sotheby's

T he only known documented pieces of the moon in private hands are returning to the auction block on 29 November in New York's Space Exploration sale. The three lunar samples, which were brought to Earth in 1970 by the Soviet Luna-16 Mission, were previously sold at Sotheby’s in 1993, marking the first time that a piece of another world had ever been offered for sale to the public.

ЧАСТИЦЫ ГРУНТА ЛУНЫ-16 [Soil Samples from Luna-16], collected September, 1970 The Only Known Documented Samples of the Moon Available for Private Ownership. Estimate $700,000–1,000,000.

The lunar samples, which are encased under glass below an adjustable lens, were presented to Mme. Nina Ivanovna Koroleva, widow of the former “Chief Designer” and director of the Soviet space program, Sergei Pavlovich Korolev, as a gift on behalf of the USSR.

Sergei Pavlovich Korolev (1906–1966), was a rocket engineer, aircraft and spacecraft designer and mastermind of the Soviet space program during the 1950s and 60s – a critical period for space exploration that included the launch of Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite (1957), the first human earth orbit by Yuri Gagarin, on board Vostok–1 (1961), the first controlled landing on the moon (1966), and the first craft to orbit the moon (1966).

Sergei Pavlovich Korolev

Korolev’s untimely death in 1966 meant that he would never see the lunar samples returned from the moon. Between 1970 and 1976 the Soviets launched three unmanned sample return missions – Luna-16, Luna-20 and Luna-24. All three missions successfully landed on the moon, outfitted with, among other remarkable technological achievements, a drilling rig used for collection of a lunar soil sample.

Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin shaking hands with Sergei Pavlovich Korolev (right), just before his flight into space, April 1961.

Authentic lunar samples available for public acquisition may be qualified as extremely rare, as title to lunar samples remains with the entities that collected them — the United States during the Apollo 11-17 missions, and the USSR (succeeded by the Russian Federation) via the Luna-16, -20, and -24 missions — as well as with the countries gifted the Apollo 11 samples and the Apollo 17 Goodwill moon rocks on behalf of the Nixon Administration. These samples are subject to laws governing public gifts, and in most cases, as in the United States, the law does not currently allow for public gifts to be transferred to an individual. As such, this is the only known, documented lunar sample to have been gifted to a private individual.

The moon rocks will headline Sotheby’s Space Exploration auction on 29 November, offered with an estimate of $700,000–1,000,000. The sale will mark just the second time that an actual piece of another world has ever been offered for public sale.

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