Voskhod 2 Mission

Inside the Art Market: Sky Travels

Elation soon turned to terror. After his twelve-minute spacewalk, Leonov prepared to reenter the airlock, and found to his horror that he could no longer fit. The air pressure had ballooned out his suit in the vacuum of space, making it so rigid that he could no longer work his way back into the hatch. Fast action was necessary as the spacecraft was rapidly spinning into darkness.

These words recalling the first-ever spacewalk in March 1965 by Soviet cosmonaut Alexi Leonov are a chilling glimpse of how things can go horribly wrong in outer space. But there is so much beauty, ecstasy and drama in space travel one forgets the danger. Neil Armstrong’s first step onto the moon, after all, was pure poetry; and the sight of astronauts on later missions hitting golf balls and wheeling about the surface of the moon as if on the back nine at Pebble Beach was great cinema. But the terror was still there. One can only imagine what went through Leonov’s mind in those horrifying moments before he was able to fight his way back through the airlock of his Voskhod II capsule to safety, and a hero’s return to Moscow, before he drifted away for all eternity, a human asteroid wrapped in twill nylon.

Some of these images came back to mind when in 1993 Sotheby’s held a most unusual and riveting sale called Russian Space History. At the time some may have thought that the old and staid auction house had, like Leonov, taken a perilous leap into the void. For here was a dazzling, novel but entirely unproven new field of collecting, and Sotheby’s was launching into it with gusto. Who had ever heard of space capsules, blackened on the outside from a fiery reentry to Earth’s atmosphere, being carted into a saleroom and offered to the highest bidder? And how did one even put an estimate on such things?

In an odd way, Russian Space History and the sequel that followed it three years later were as much a narrative about the collapse of the Soviet Union as they were about the demise of their once proud and triumphant space program. The greatest minds of Soviet science and technology had devised plans for conquering space with these relics, and here they were to be featured in a sort of art market rummage sale in America, of all places. It seemed a most humbling turnabout of fortunes.

But Russian Space History, above all, would be about entertainment and spectacle, and Sotheby’s was more than equal to mounting a big show. Indeed, the auction houses are like the old Hollywood studios: masters at story-telling, costuming and production design, above all at setting a scene and building drama, with plot twists and shock endings built into the rhythm of a sale. And so for Russian Space History Sotheby’s pulled out all the stops.

The catalogues were nothing short of brilliant, scholarly and suspenseful all at once. Here were stirring tales of a program long shrouded in darkest mystery and now revealed in stunning detail through diverse, quirky objects and memorabilia, much of it consigned by the engineers and cosmonauts themselves: space logs, space suits, a charred space capsule, flight instructions, celestial globes, slide rules and exotic charts, photographs, wedding pictures and team portraits, letters, manifestoes, even mementos of the dogs that been trained and flown in space. It was a dense and dazzling encyclopedia of the Russian space program from its earliest days to the manned space station era, a circus and a cyclorama all at once.

The Sotheby’s catalogues explained the whole heroic storyline of the Russian space program clearly, for all to understand, with no scientific mumbo-jumbo. This after all was a sale, not a museum retrospective. Indeed, it seemed also like a fashion show, with members of Sotheby’s staff photographed in the catalogue modeling bright orange spacesuits and heavy leather laced boots, on their heads the gray metal helmets with the Cyrillic letters CCCP for the USSR. They looked ready for launch!

Sotheby’s Books and Manuscripts Department completely oversaw both sales. As the introduction to the catalogue stated, this department above all was highly practiced in doing “important original research in unexpected areas,” and Russian Space History certainly was that. Hence all the catalogue notes were written with that breathless idiom of insight and revelation so typical of book sale catalogues but with the added drama of real adventure standing behind the words. And perhaps to belie the stuffiness and haughty manner one might associate with the Sotheby’s Books and Manuscripts Department, Selby Kifer, one of its leading specialists, dressed up as well for the catalogue. In one photograph he is seen wearing the great cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin’s “Soviet Air Force Dress Day Uniform,” medals and all. One almost expected to see Dede Brooks, the Sotheby’s CEO, posing as Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space!

Hence how thrilling it was when the exhibition for this landmark auction opened in New York. It was visually eye-popping, like a walk through the glorious National Air and Space Museum at the Smithsonian, only more startling and mystifying for the deep secrecy that had shrouded these objects over the years. The adventure of viewing things was made all the more intense and dramatic by the appearance at Sotheby’s of some of the cosmonauts themselves, notably Leonov, the first man to walk in space. To all he appeared a smiling, jovial, bear-like man, but he was indeed a legend, not least for having cheated death in space. And here he was posing for pictures with children and shaking hands with complete strangers like one of those celebrity greeters at the casinos in Las Vegas. But he was so genuine and heroic and real you could only stare at him in wonder and ask for his autograph.

It is a testament to the business development savviness of the great auction houses of the world that they can often create a sale with the same sleight-of-hand showmanship of a magician conjuring a rabbit from a top hat. For this is how Russian Space History came to be. In short, Sotheby’s picked up the phone and made a cold call, setting everything in motion with a sales pitch.

The call was made by David Redden. For years he had gained a reputation at Sotheby’s as a master of promotion, a wizard of press briefings and salesmanship. While he was head of the Book Department at Sotheby’s, he also ruled the small empire of collectibles sales that included all manner of memorabilia, from toys and dolls and comic books to rock memorabilia and anything truly exotic and daring. He had thus read in the paper about a company in Houston called Space Commerce Corporation, one that represented various business interests for Russia in the West now that the Soviet Union had collapsed.

So Redden called Space Commerce and got right to the point: Sotheby’s would like to sell whatever was left of the Soviet space program.

Sotheby’s had an advantage here, for the firm already had many admirers in Russia from its historic sale of Soviet Contemporary art in Moscow in 1988. So the name was familiar to many. In due course a deal was done and teams of specialists began making their way to Russia to begin harvesting material for the auction. Since the former cosmonauts and their families had retained various objects and mementoes and were now allowed to consign these, Redden and his team came prepared to see and evaluate possible items for sale the way Sotheby’s had traditionally done for years in something called “Heirloom Discovery Days.” This was an early version of “Antiques Road Show,” with people in, say, Cincinnati, invited to drop by a hotel ballroom with family treasures for the nice people from Sotheby’s to appraise. It was a sure-fire way of unearthing something of potential value perhaps hiding in plain sight, far from the New York salerooms. Redden thus ingeniously brought “Heirloom Discovery Days” to Russia.

As recounted by Francis X. Clines in a New York Times article of August 1993 entitled Going-Out-of-Business Sale for Soviets’ Space Program, the gambit was brilliant:

“Dozens of Soviet Astronauts who were celebrities mainly within Star City, the secret Soviet space center outside Moscow, have come forward with memorabilia for Sotheby’s—looking for dollars, of course, but also wanting to share with the world their long-hidden adventures. ‘Here were heroes of the cosmos, lining up with parcels and bags containing extraordinary things,’ Mr. Redden said, making his visits to Star City sound like buying trips to countless sidewalk markets of amateur capitalists who so poignantly blanket post-communist Russia.”

Other, more monumental objects, like the two space capsules, were consigned by other entities, thus giving the sale a curiously Western and capitalistic entrepreneurial flavor, as everyone was highly motivated by the welcome prospect of hard currency flowing to Russian at a time of bleak economic circumstances there. Here was an ingenious sale plan that made everyone happy.

After numerous trips to Russia by the Sotheby’s team, large orange and green crates began arriving at the York Avenue headquarters in New York, the crates exotically “festooned with Cyrillic lettering” and containing the fabulous trove of memorabilia that Redden and his team had uncovered and signed up for the sale. The specialists then began sorting through all the “hardware” and translating logbooks, diaries, charts and engineering plans. It was a mammoth task, and one completely new to the book and manuscript specialists at Sotheby’s. But then, there were so many great anecdotes and tales behind each object that the task of cataloguing it must have felt euphoric for the Sotheby’s team, like writing chapters of a Cold War thriller.

Indeed, the lyrical descriptions in the catalogue summoned up all the artistry of the auction house branding machine, with even the most curious and modest item given presentation in poetic, stirring descriptions. To give but one example, Lot 73 in the sale was as a child’s doll. But this doll had a tragic story to tell.

It had been signed secretly, as a prank, by a cosmonaut named Victor Patsayev on the eve of his flight aboard Soyuz 11for a rendezvous with the Soviet space station, Salyut 1. But since it was considered bad luck for a cosmonaut to give autographs before a flight, Patsayev postdated his inscription by a month. As the catalogue recounted, the flight of Soyuz 1, over three weeks long, was glowingly reported in the Soviet press as something to equal the Americans landing on the moon. But then there was this, as told by the Sotheby’s cataloguers:

“Their descent on 30 June seemed at first to be a routine one, but when the capsule was found and opened, all three were dead. It was eventually determined that during the descent a valve had opened prematurely, evacuating the atmosphere and condemning the crew, who flew without pressurized spacesuits, to rapid suffocation.”

An eerie full-page color illustration of this little “mama doll” showing the cosmonaut’s signature on its chest added even more poignancy to the story, with Sotheby’s providing an upper-case summary of its significance thus: A ONCE LIGHT-HEARTED BUT NOW CHILLING MEMENTO OF THE SOYUZ 11 CATASTROPHE.

What theatre!

It was almost an after-thought what prices the sale brought overall. Still, the final figure was a robust $6.8 million, with one of the space capsules making $1.7 million, below estimate, with the other capsule bringing $552,500. The prolonged bidding wars in the saleroom were intriguing, from a sheer business point of view; but it was the stories in the catalogue, many of them recounted by the cosmonauts themselves to give vibrancy to items otherwise arcane and mysterious, which added so much romance and excitement to this daring venture.

“Here is a chapter of history so contained, so dwindling,” said David Redden in trying to place Russian Space History into an art market context. For here were artifacts of a secret program that had now faded from view and was but dimly recalled. Only the artifacts remained to tell the story of conquests and failures and deaths. Thus for all its oddities the sale was a very traditional one in the art world, bringing forth for collectors, curators and enthusiasts of history items of human artistry and creativity that told a story otherwise unknown.

Just two years later Sotheby’s had another fascinating space sale for the public to swoon over. Only this one involved travel far more glamorous, luxurious and sleek.

It was an archive pertaining to the development of the Concorde, a joint venture between Great Britain and France to build the first commercial supersonic jetliner for travel across the Atlantic. The plane went into service in 1976, carrying passengers sipping champagne and eating caviar at a cruising speed of Mach 2.0 (1,350 miles per hour), twice the speed of sound. The archive included drawings, wind tunnel models, flight overalls and helmets and prototype flight instruments and manuals. But the star lot was a fabulous Test Specimen Droop Nose Section from an actual Concorde aircraft. It was wheeled into the heart of Mayfair in London, outside Sotheby’s exquisite premises, for all to see and admire during the sale—a showstopper indeed.

One had to wonder what Alexi Leonov would have made of this sale spectacle—or indeed of the pampered flight experience Concorde offered its elite passengers before it went out of service in 2003.

By way of comparison, on one of Leonov’s flights his no-frills spacecraft had landed far off course in the Urals during a three-day blizzard. Unfazed, the intrepid cosmonaut built a fire outside his capsule and awaited his rescue team, contending with bears but at least comforted by the culinary delights of his Soviet survival kit.

—Ronald Varney

(Image: Voskhod 2 mission, Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov during world’s first space walk (eva) in 1965. Photo by Sovfoto/UIG via Getty Images.)