Thursday 22 August 2019

The Irishman in search of the holy grail of autographs

In the month of the 50th anniversary of the first lunar spacewalk, author Don Mullan writes about his acquisition of the Holy Grail of autographs - astronaut Neil Armstrong’s 

U.S. astronaut Neil A. Armstrong, commander of the Apollo 11 Lunar Landing mission, is pictured. Photo: REUTERS/NASA/Handout
U.S. astronaut Neil A. Armstrong, commander of the Apollo 11 Lunar Landing mission, is pictured. Photo: REUTERS/NASA/Handout

Don Mullan

IN SECONDARY school, my favourite period of history was the Age of Exploration when European explorers, propelled by burgeoning capitalism, travelled the Earth in search of new trading routes. Journeys undertaken by men such as Christopher Columbus, Vasco da Gama, John Cabot and Ferdinand Magellan were uncritically presented as great adventures with little reference to the rupture their so-called ‘discovery’ brought to indigenous ‘uncivilized’ societies.

Later in life I visited the Pantheon in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, where I looked upon the anchor of the Santa Maria, the ship upon which Christopher Columbus, in 1492, unknowingly 'discovered' America. 

In 2003 news arrived that the Space Age Columbus, Neil Armstrong, the first man to step onto the moon, would be interviewed  by the veteran Irish broadcaster, Gay Byrne, at the National Concert Hall, Dublin. Tickets were pricy at EUR 80 each.The interview was

a sellout. 

It was a memorable evening, in which the blurred phosphorescent image I had watched step onto the moon as a 13-year-old boy at 2:56am on July 21st, 1969 (at the home of my auntie Rosaleen and uncle Eddie, in Sunnylands Estate, Carrickfergus, Co. Antrim) became

technicolor.  

Don Mullan's Original Signatures of all the Apollo 11 crew
Don Mullan's Original Signatures of all the Apollo 11 crew

Eventually the audience were given an opportunity to ask questions during which, in answer to one from myself, Armstrong stated he believed there was a higher intelligence at work in the Cosmos. 

But then came a question that threw me, and which set me on my own mission to acquire what is considered the holy grail of  signatures. A young man in the stalls asked, "Mr. Armstrong, can I have your autograph?"

"I don't do autographs anymore," Armstrong replied. "I saw my autograph being sold on the internet and decided I would never again give it. But I'd be happy to meet you afterwards for a photograph."

That night, and in the following months, I began to search the internet for Neil Armstrong autographs. I learned that his signature changed, especially in the post-Apollo era, to a distinctive tall and lean scribble - easily forged - with thousands of forgeries and autopen signatures in circulation. The challenge, then, if I was to acquire one, was to be certain of its provenance and authenticity.

During the third week of April 2004 I found on eBay an item advertised as ‘Original Signatures of all the Apollo 11 crew’. The document for auction was historical, fascinating, and brought with it the necessary security that reassured me it was the real deal. 

It was a formal invitation to an awards ceremony presided over by the Vice President of the United States, Spiro Agnew,  to distribute Harmon International Aviation Trophies in Washington D.C. on May 19, 1971. The document contained six signatures in total, including all three Apollo 11 astronauts: Spacecraft Commander Neil Armstrong, Lunar Module Pilot Edwin E. (Buzz) Aldrin Jr., and Command Module Pilot Michael Collins.  

The autographed document had been gifted to 14-year-old Barbara Locke whose father, Bill, was the editor of the RAF News in 1971 and who attended the aviation  awards ceremony and collected the signatures.

The eBay 10-day auction for the document was slotted from May 20-30, 2004. The first bidder, Scott Bishop, opened with a £42 sterling bid on the evening of May 21st.

Four hours later a Texan raised the bid to £100. For the next five days bidding was slow, adding just £15. Then on 2pm on 29 May I registered my interest with a bid for £125 which, five hours later was topped by a bid of £177. I won the auction with 10 seconds

to go with a bid of £550. It has since,exponentially,increased in value, especially since the death of Neil Armstrong on August 25, 2012.  

The year before his passing, the vice-president of the Universal Autograph Collector’s Club, Anthony Pizzitola, wrote an entire book entitled: ‘Neil Armstrong: The Quest For His Autograph’.

At the time Pizzitola stated Armstrong’s signature ‘has the highest value of anyone alive, and no one’s even close in second place’.   Pizzitola also offered an intriguing additional insight into why Armstrong may have stopped signing autographs:

"People say it's because he was irritated that the autographs were being sold on eBay, but I think that's only part of it. I think what happened was that in the early '90s he lost both parents within six months of each other, he had a heart attack, his wife divorced

him and he remarried. With all these earthshaking, if you will, events, he just decided to shut it down.”

Apparently, Armstrong’s refusal to give his autograph was resolute and not just confined to requests such as I witnessed at Dublin’s National Concert Hall. According to Pizzitola, Armstrong turned down Nancy Pelosi and the widow of Apollo 1 fire victim, Ed White. 

In 2011, the year before his death, Pizzitola estimated that a Neil Armstrong autograph could be worth anywhere from US$2,500 to US$5,500. Pizzitola also states that Buzz Aldrin, the other half of the First Men on the Moon, sells his autographs for US$500 but

if he is presented with an item already signed by Armstrong and Michael Collins, he charges US$1000 for his autograph. “It’s worth it,” Pizzitola states, “because the item would be worth US$8000”.  

So, what is the historical document I purchased, thanks to a Neil Armstrong tip-off in 2003, worth today? The truth is, I don’t know. 

The staining on the Harmon International Awards invitation, left by dried-in sellotape residue used by young Barbara Locke to secure her father’s gift in her scrapbook in 1971, might be cited as devaluing the document, especially as the stains slightly touch the edges of all six signatures, including Neil Armstrong’s. They are also part of the provenance and authentication of the signatures on this historical document. They too have their own intrinsic value as they speak to me of a father’s love, going from table to table, asking for autographs, and of his young daughter’s innocence. 

For all the above, and the enjoyment the document has brought, each time I look at the moon, I smile, and give thanks.

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