Lot 63
  • 63


700,000 - 1,000,000 USD
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  • ЧАСТИЦЫ ГРУНТА ЛУНЫ-16 [Soil Samples from Luna-16], collected September, 1970
Three samples of lunar rock from Luna-16, the first automated sample retrieval from the moon, encased under glass within a 2 by 2 inch metal block positioned below an adjustable lens, the whole secured to a 6½ by 3½ inch metal base labeled “ЧАСТИЦЫ ГРУНТА ЛУНЫ-16” [SOIL PARTICLES FROM LUNA-16]. Central fragment consisting of basalt with feldspar crystals visible, adjoining larger fragments consisting of finely structured vesicular agglutinates, showing glass coatings caused by age-old meteorite impact.


Mme Nina Ivanovna Koroleva, widow of Sergei Pavlovich Korolev, the “Chief Designer” and director of the Soviet space program. Presented to her as a gift on behalf of the USSR in recognition of her late husband’s incalculable contributions to the program. Consigned by her and sold in Sotheby’s Russian Space History sale in 1993 (lot 68).


Bakos L. et al. “Investigation of the composition of the Luna 16 Lunar Sample.” Soviet-American Conference on Cosmochemistry of the Moon and Planets (1977) pp 277-280; Cimbalnikova A., Palivova M., Frana J. and Mastalka A. “Chemical composition of crystalline rock fragments from Luna 16 and Luna 20 fines.”  The Soviet-American Conference on Cosmochemistry of the moon and planets (1977), pp 263-275; Dickson, Paul. Sputnik: The Shock of the Century.  Walker & Company (2001); Harford, James.  Korolev: How One Man Masterminded the Soviet Drive to Beat America to the Moon.  John Wiley & Sons (1997);  Kurat G., Kracher A., Keil K., Warner R. and Prinz M. “Composition and origin of Luna 16 aluminous mare basalts.”  Proceedings of the 7th Lunar Science Conference (1976) pp 1301-1321.; McCauley J.F. and Scott D.H. “The Geologic Setting of the Luna 16 landing site.”  Earth and Planetary Science Letters, 13, (1972) pp 223-224; Taylor G.J., Warren P., Ryder G., Delano J., Pieters C. and Lofgren G. “Lunar Rocks”. Lunar Sourcebook: A User’s Guide to the Moon.  Cambridge University Press (1991); Vinogradov, A. P.  “Preliminary data on the lunar soil brought to earth by automatic probe 'Luna-16'.”  Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, Vol 24, (Aug. 1971) pp 475-495;  Wilhelms, Don E., To a Rocky Moon: A Geologist’s History of Lunar Exploration (1992), pp 243-244 and passim;  Zaehringer, Alfred.  Soviet Space Technology. Harper Brothers (1961)

Catalogue Note

On Saturday, December 11, 1993 Sotheby’s made history by offering what was, and continues to be, the only known documented sample of lunar rock in private hands, collected during the Soviet Luna-16 mission, and presented as a gift to the widow of the man known during his lifetime only as “главный конструктор” [Glavny Konstruktor, or “Chief Designer”] —  a man who would emerge from the shroud of anonymity only after his death: the rocket engineer, spacecraft designer, and mastermind of the Soviet space program, Sergei Pavlovich Korolev. The sale of the Luna-16  lunar rock sample was a momentous moment, marking the first time that a piece of another world had ever been offered to the public. There have been numerous attempts to sell lunar material since that day, both privately and at auction, with the majority of those offered being either spurious, or having found to have been stolen property. The Luna-16 sample sold by Sotheby’s in 1993 remains to this day the only known documented legal sale of lunar material to have ever occurred.

Authentic lunar samples available for public acquisition may be qualified as extremely rare, as title to all lunar samples remains with the entities that collected them —the United States via 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 KNOW DOCUMENTED LUNAR SAMPLE TO HAVE BEEN GIFTED TO A PRIVATE INDIVIDUAL.

Sergei Pavlovich Korolev (1906-1966) was a Soviet National Treasure, though if his early career is any indication, the true value of his work was not fully appreciated until after his death. In 1938, Korolev was imprisoned in the Gulag for 6 years on false charges of being a member of an Anti-Soviet counter-revolutionary organization, and even spent several months in a Kolmya labour camp.  After his release from prison, Korolev, who had trained as an aircraft designer, turned his attentions to the design of rockets, becoming a key figure in the development of the Soviet Intercontinental ballistic missile program.

Korolev was eventually made director of the Soviet space program, and its entire success would rest on his shoulders. Realizing early on that Korolev could be at risk for assassination during the Cold War by the United States, the decision was made by Stalin and adhered to by his successors, to keep Korolev’s true identity secret. Throughout his career working on the program, he went by “Chief Designer,” and even the cosmonauts who worked with him were unaware of his true name. The importance and impact of his work cannot be overstated, and some of his early successes included:

-The development of the first intercontinental ballistic missile (R-7 Semyorka, August 1957)

-The launch of the world’s first artificial satellite (Sputnik-1, October 1957)

-The first living creature to orbit the Earth (Laika the dog, on board Sputnik-2, November 1957)

-The first probe to reach the moon (Luna 2, September 1959)

-The first pictures of the dark side of the moon (Luna 3, October 1959)

-The first human spaceflight (by Yuri Gagarin, on board Vostok-1, April 1961)

-The first woman in space (Valentina Tereshkova, Vostok 6, June 1963)

-The first spacewalk (by Alexei Leonov, during Voshkod 2, March 1965)

-The first soft or controlled landing on the moon (Luna 9, January-February 1966)

-The first craft to orbit the moon (Luna 10, March-April 1966) 

Korolev’s untimely death in 1966 dealt the Soviets a fatal blow, and it soon became clear that the Americans would, barring disaster, be the first to set foot on the moon. Just two days before the July 16 1969 launch of Apollo 11, Luna 15 was launched by the Soviets with the hopes of making an automated acquisition and retrieval of lunar samples; this attempt, however, failed, the probe crashing to the moon's surface the day Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to set foot on the moon. Fourteen months later, in September 1970, the Luna 16 mission was finally successful. The probe landed safely and upright within the Mare Fecundatis south of the Crisium Basin rim, drilled a hole in the lunar surface to a depth of 36 cm, extracted a core sample, moved it upward into the return stage, blasted off, and brought the core and overlying more fragmented soil safely back to earth.  Luna 16 marked one of the finest technological achievements of the Soviet space program, with the spacecraft consisting of an ascent stage mounted on top of a descent stage. The descent stage was outfitted with radiation and temperature monitors, telecommunications equipment, a television monitor, and most importantly, an extendable arm with a drilling rig used for the collection of a lunar sample. Luna 16 landed in northern Mare Fecunditatis (landing site: 0.7°S, 56.3°E) and collected a 36 centimeter deep core from a mare basalt regolith, with fragments consisting of a moderately-high-Ti, high-Al variety of basalt. The grain size and overall characteristics of the Luna 16 sample are very similar to mare soils returned by the Apollo missions, and a variety of analyses have revealed minute traces of more than 70 elements in the totality of the Luna 16 sample. Tests on other basalt fragments from the samples made at the California Institute of Technology using rubidium-stronium isotopes have dated the rock to approximately 3.4 billion years old.

It was not until after his death that Korolev’s true identity was revealed. The man who lived in anonymity, and whose staggering accomplishments could never be openly acknowledged during his lifetime, was finally given the public recognition he so richly deserved. His obituary was published in the Pravda newspaper on January 16, 1966, featuring a photo of him with all of his medals, and following an official state funeral, his ashes were interred with all state honors in the Kremlin wall.