NEW YORK • A bag used by United States astronaut Neil Armstrong to bring the first samples of Moon dust back to Earth was sold to an anonymous bidder for US$1.8 million (S$2.5 million) at an auction in New York on Thursday, marking the 48th anniversary of the first landing on the Moon.
The bag, which for years sat unidentified in a box at the Johnson Space Centre in Houston, was bought by a person who bid by telephone and did not wish to be named publicly, auctioneer Sotheby's said. Auctioneers had expected the bag to fetch between US$2 million and US$4 million.
It was the highest-value item at an auction of Moon memorabilia that included the Apollo 13 flight plan annotated by its crew, which sold for US$275,000, a spacesuit worn by US astronaut Gus Grissom, which sold for US$43,750, and a famous image of astronaut Buzz Aldrin of Apollo 11 on the Moon taken by fellow astronaut Neil Armstrong, which went for US$35,000.
After Mr Armstrong and his Apollo 11 crew came home in July of 1969, the fate of the 30cm by 22cm bag, labelled "Lunar Sample Return", was unknown for decades.
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After disappearing from the Johnson centre, it surfaced in the garage of Max Ary, the manager of a Kansas museum who was convicted of its theft in 2014, according to court records.
The bag was seized by the US Marshals Service, which put it up for auction three times, drawing no bids until it was bought in 2015 for US$995 by a Chicago-area attorney Nancy Lee Carlson. She sent the bag to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) for authentication, and when tests revealed it was used by Mr Armstrong and still had Moon dust traces inside, the US space agency decided to keep it.
Ms Carlson successfully sued Nasa to get the bag back, and the attention created by her legal challenge prompted many inquiries from potential buyers, according to Sotheby's. That led Ms Carlson to decide to auction it again.
One group criticised the decision to sell a piece of space history. "The bag belongs in a museum, so the entire world can share in and celebrate the universal human achievement it represents," said Ms Michelle Hanlon, co-founder of For All Moonkind, a non-profit group formed to persuade the United Nations to adopt measures to preserve and protect the six Apollo lunar landing sites.