Howard Weinberger was on a mission. As a longtime collector of toys from the past, as well as other rare items, he spent seven years in search of little-known silver and gold medallions from the Apollo space program.
A financial advisor in Farmington Hills, Weinberger was well-versed with the principle that scarcity creates value, but only in tandem with demand. The medallions, commissioned by the Apollo crew astronauts to commemorate their space adventures, have a guarded history as few people knew of their existence.
“The odd thing was, no one seemed to know anything about the coins,” Weinberger says of his search, which began in 1990. “I wrote letters, made calls, but every time I got close to learning something about the medallions, the trail would grow cold.” Compounding the difficulty of his pursuit was the fact that the federal government and NASA had no official record of the coins because the astronauts handled everything amongst themselves.
Finally, Weinberger located a rare coin dealer in Denver who suggested he contact The Robbins Co., near Boston. “When I called, an elderly gentleman (George Ryan) came on the phone, [and] I started describing the coins,” Weinberger recalls. “And he says: ‘I suppose the information has been a secret for long enough.’ ”
Weinberger subsequently wrote a book — The Robbins Medallions: Flown Treasure from the Apollo Space Program — that detailed the creation, design, and minting of the astronaut medallions. At the time the book was published, in 1999, few of the coins had been sold. But in recent years, as the Apollo flight crews have advanced in years, more of the medallions and other space-related materials such as flight manuals, heat shield fragments, and spacecraft parts have been offered for sale, either to private collectors or at auction houses like Bonhams New York or Heritage Auction Galleries (in Dallas).
The book turned Weinberger into the “de facto expert” of the medallions, which commemorated Apollo missions 7 through 17. “The next thing I know I’m getting calls from the astronauts, and I have since met and consulted with quite a few of them,” says Weinberger, CEO of Asset Alternatives Inc. “I’ve been collecting toys, comic art, minerals, and other items for more than 30 years, but meeting the heroes from my youth was something else.”
As it stands, 2,929 silver medallions and 56 gold medallions were flown in space. Most of the silver coins have fetched between $1,500 and $15,000 apiece at recent auctions, although some have drawn as much as $30,000 (Apollo 11 artifacts are the most popular as its lunar module, Eagle, was the first manned spacecraft to touch down on the moon).
The 14-karat gold coins flown in space are more valuable, given their limited numbers and the fact that the astronauts and their families are reluctant to part with them. Weinberger says the price range for a gold medallion could be $25,000 to $500,000, depending on the mission.
The space-memorabilia market has two distinct camps: Items flown in space are more valuable than those that never left earth. For example, a name tag that Edgar Mitchell wore on the moon sold for $59,750 last April at a Heritage auction, but a technical manual that never left the planet sold at the same auction for $35,850.
“The best advice for anyone seeking to invest in space memorabilia is to have proof of an artifact’s authenticity,” Weinberger says. “Every spacecraft part had a serial number — even the bolts. An artifact’s greatest value to the potential buyer is detailed and credible documentation.”