One giant signature for mankind

By Brian MacQuarrie, Boston Globe Staff July 14, 2009

AMHERST, N.H. - Forty years ago on Thursday, astronaut Neil Armstrong hurtled into space aboard Apollo 11 for his rendezvous with immortality on the dusty surface of the moon.

But before he rode an elevator to the top of a 30-story-tall Saturn V rocket, Armstrong paused and wrote a check for $10.50 to a colleague.

“Here’s a check for the loan,’’ Armstrong said to Hal Collins, NASA chief of mission support. “But don’t cash it, because I will be coming back.’’

Four decades later, Armstrong’s autograph would become the most valuable from any living human being, collectors say. That check, with a clearly legible name that flows gracefully across its bottom, is now for sale through an auction house here.

“He’s the most sought-after human being for an autograph,’’ said Anthony Pizzitola of Houston, vice president of the Universal Autograph Collectors Club, the largest of its kind in the world. “That’s based on the fact that he just stopped signing in 1994. It’s just like a stock; that’s basically what it is.’’

The confluence of ultrarare qualities - an Armstrong signature, the timing of launch day, and the approaching anniversary - is sweet music to RR Auction, which is handling the sale here. Bids, which close at 10 p.m. tomorrow, appear likely to top the previous high of $19,000 for an Armstrong signing, Pizzitola said.

RR Auction owner Bob Eaton, whose modest storefront masks a star-studded office where Marilyn Monroe competes with Teddy Roosevelt for wall space, said the check shows something of Armstrong’s character. During a pressure-packed morning of flight preparations, the astronaut took time to repay a friend.

“Before he left for the moon, he wanted to show that this gentleman would be paid back,’’ said Eaton, a native of Newton, Mass., who first dipped his toes in the business at age 19, when he used an $1,800 loan from his grandfather to buy a heaping trove of baseball artifacts.

The check was offered for consignment by Noah Bradley of Charlottesville, Va., a collector of space memorabilia who bought the item from Collins’s son in 2002. With the anniversary of Armstrong’s moon walk approaching, Bradley decided to resell.

“As collectors, we are always temporary custodians of any item, and sometimes it’s time to let it go somewhere else,’’ said Bradley, 52, who restores and rebuilds historic homes. “If you’re interested in space collecting, Neil Armstrong is the pinnacle.’’

Armstrong’s is also a difficult autograph to acquire. The former test pilot and Korean War aviator, who became concerned about the profiteering and forgeries associated with his signature, stopped signing autographs for the public in 1994. He once even threatened to sue his longtime barber, who had sold a bit of Armstrong’s hair for $3,000.

What makes this autograph extra special, said Eaton, who recently sold a signed copy of the famous tongue-wagging photo of Albert Einstein, is that Armstrong included his rarely used middle initial. It was one of only three times he signed his full name, Neil A. Armstrong, during the Apollo 11 mission. The other two times were on a customs declaration after reentry and on a plaque left on the moon, according to the RR Auction staff.

Bids might top $30,000 by tomorrow’s deadline, predicted Bob Livingston, the auction’s director of sales and marketing. After the 10 p.m. window closes, bidders who participated before the deadline can submit new offers during 10-minute segments that are reset with each fresh bid. Once 10 minutes have passed without a new offer, the sale is closed.

Livingston predicted that bidding, primarily from baby boomers with keen memories of the July 20, 1969, moon landing, could continue until 6 a.m. Thursday. So far, bidding that opened July 10 has attracted interest from Europe and across the United States, the auction staff said.

The allure of an authenticated autograph, in addition to its monetary value, includes the knowledge that “it’s absolutely personal,’’ Livingston said.

RR Auction, which offers 1,500 items each month, handles the highest volume of autographs of any auction house in the country, Eaton said. The house’s fees for the Armstrong check will be 18 percent from the buyer and between 10 and 15 percent from the seller, Eaton said.

To walk through the business is to walk through a who’s who of signed photos and memorabilia from an array of politicians, sports figures, entertainers, and inventors.

Thomas Edison and the Wright brothers are favorites here, as well as luminaries as diverse as George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, P.T. Barnum, and Ted Williams.

There’s also a ticket to the US Senate gallery for the 1868 impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson; a ticket to the 1935 trial of Bruno Hauptmann, executed in the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh’s baby; and even a request from 1836, written in Spanish by Lieutenant Colonel William Travis, to buy beef for his doomed men at the Alamo.

From now through Wednesday, however, the focus will be on Armstrong, and a mission of unprecedented human exploration that captivated the world. What $10.50 had bought for a soon-to-be space traveler with no need for money - or any place to put spare cash and coins, for that matter - is unknown to Bradley or the auction house.

But what that check represented, in very human terms, is the unpredictable mortality of a mission whose sheer audacity seems magnified with every passing year.

“It captures that moment forever,’’ Livingston said.