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How the Soviets won the space race

The news that a Soviet VA space capsule is to auction in Brussels on May 7 is hugely exciting for space memorabilia collectors.

To those with a more casual interest in the subject, it may appear less exciting, yet its story may surprise you.

The Soviets developed the VA in the early 1960s, with the intention of using it to land a human on the Moon.

VA space capsule

The VA space capsule

While today we think of the Americans as the undisputed victors of that particular aspect of the space race, in reality events didn’t really play out exactly as they were portrayed in the Western media.

In fact, the Russians were the first to get an object to land on to the surface of the satellite in 1959 (even if it did crash). In 1966, they made their first unmanned soft landing in January with the Luna 9 probe, a full five months before the Americans managed the same with Surveyor 1.

Sputnik was the first man made object in Space

Sputnik was the first satellite to be launched into Space

Add this to the wealth of other Russian firsts (first man in space, first woman in space, first lunar orbit etc) and you begin to understand why the US was so desperate to land a man on the Moon.

This wasn’t just about proving technological superiority. This was ideological.

The most crucial aspect of this narrative is that the Russians were never really committed to manned missions, mainly due to the enormous expense of such a project. A half hearted attempt, begun in 1964, never left the ground, having been floored by a lack of funding.

Had they levelled the entire apparatus and resources of the state at the project, as happened in the US, it’s entirely possible that the first words transmitted from the Moon may have been in Russian. They’d proven that they had the technical ability, they simply lacked the will.

So the VA capsule, designed to ferry passengers to the Moon, was used instead to transport cosmonauts between the first space station (1971) and earth - a feat of equal importance.

If we think of the space race as a relay rather than a series of events building up to the Moon landing, the Russians come out ahead every time.


David Hasselhoff joins the A-list at last with Julien’s Auctions

The collecting world often presents us with some unusual items, but rarely any so strange as the David Hasselhoff lifesize figure coming up for sale at Julien’s Auctions.

David Hasslehoof lifesize figure

Whatever your reason for buying, the Hoff is sure to provide hours of fun

Starring in a sale of his memorabilia, the gleeful model of The Hoff is expected to make between $20,000-30,000.

Used in the Spongebob Squarepants movie, it was also seen at the Comedy Central Roast of David Hasselhoff, with celebrities queuing up to have their photo taken with the Baywatch hunk.

Hasslehoff also stands alongside A-listers of the collecting world in the auction, with Marilyn Monroe’s earrings and Clark Gable’s script for The Misfits up for sale.

But will collector’s clamour for Hasselhoff memorabilia in the future?

He’s already something of an icon, having appeared in hit 80s TV shows Baywatch and Knight Rider, as well as that legendary appearance at the Fall of the Berlin Wall…

Nazi-stolen paintings unveiled

The last time the public saw these paintings, Hitler was chancellor of Germany.

These works of art are so important, and so controversial, that their location remains a secret.

But now, for the first time, we have been granted access to a few of them, courtesy of the BBC.

Frank Marc’s Pferde in Landschaft

Franz Marc’s Pferde in Landschaft is among the artworks recovered

I’m talking of the 1,500 or so works of art, many stolen by the Nazis, that Cornelius Gurlitt kept in his house for more than half a century.

They include multi-million dollar pieces by the likes of Picasso, Renoir, Monet and Manet.

Take a look for yourself, and see if you find this video as astonishing as I do.


A new world record for Chinese art?

A 15th century “chicken cup” is once again poised to shatter the record for a Chinese work of art at auction, 15 years after it achieved the then record price of $4m in 1999.

Following a string of increasingly high profile sales of Chinese art, a new figure of $32.4m was set for a Qing dynasty vase at Sotheby’s Hong Kong in 2010.

It seems almost a certainty that the cup will break the current record, due to the extraordinary regard with which it is held in Chinese culture.

The 15th century chicken cup

At first glance, the diminutive cup does not look much like a contender to become the most valuable anything, but like many of the most fascinating collectibles – there is more than meets the eye.

The story begins in the Chenghua period of the Ming dynasty (1464-1487), where the cups were produced in tiny quantites in the imperial kiln.

They were designed specifically for the appreciation of the emperor and as a result, the quality of the porcelain and the simple, elegant painting is unmatched.

Their delicate beauty fascinated subsequent generations, who saw in the cups an unmannered and unaffected aesthetic perfection.

Subsequent emperors and scholars sang their praises, resulting in a meteoric rise in value throughout the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties.

They took on an almost legendary quality, becoming symbols of Chinese artisanship.

Poet and writer Zhu Yizun (1629-1709) wrote: “Chicken cups were not obtainable in the city for less than five pieces of white gold and those who did have the means to buy them greatly cherished them.”

Similarly another writer, Cheng Che, commented in the 17th century, “A pair of Chenghua cups was already worth 10,000 cash.”

Endless copies have been made throughout the ages to feed the public demand for these iconic wares and now, of the very few originals, only three survive.


Curse of the Hemingways – a hereditary horror story

Around a month or so ago at PBA Galleries, an archive of Ernest Hemingway’s family photos came up for auction.

The young Ernest Hemingway stands awkwardly at the far right

The young Ernest Hemingway stands awkwardly at the far right

A great set of collectible photographs from a great writer, but little more. They sold for $4,800.

Then, last night, I was channel hopping when I came across a documentary on Hemingway’s life. Having read a few of his books, I decided to give it a watch.

If nothing else, his famous Action Man-style machismo would keep me amused…

Ernest Hemingway family

Hemingway with Pauline and his sons

I was surprised when the show featured a number of Hemingway’s relatives. It’s rare that any great writers’ family want to be interviewed, especially with the famously unhappy childhood that Hemingway’s children shared.

The man was stern and had little time for small children. One of his sons remembered being yelled at for making the smallest noise while his father was writing upstairs.

The model family: Pauline Pfeiffer worked for Vogue and showed little interest in her children

The model family: Pauline Pfeiffer worked for Vogue and showed little interest in her children

Their mother, Hemingway’s second wife Pauline Pfeiffer, was a socialite who worked in Paris for Vanity Fair and Vogue – she had little affection for the children, spurred by difficult pregnancies, and they would be ushered in to kiss her on the cheek before school, their only contact with her each day.

“I hated her guts!” Patrick Hemingway exclaimed in the documentary.

Hemingway shared an equally unhappy relationship with his own mother, but had a fondness for his father, whom he often favoured in his parents’ endless arguments: “I hate her guts and she hates mine,” he wrote in 1949. “She forced my father to suicide.”

Of course, Hemingway followed in his father’s footsteps. A heavy drinker, possibly suffering from bi-polar and severe depression, he shot himself in 1961.

A gloomy bunch, but it’s not just these two generations of the Hemingway family that have been blighted with this curse.

Hemingway and sons at the writer's Finca in Cuba

Hemingway and sons at the writer’s Finca in Cuba

In fact, in four generations of the Hemingway family, there has been five suicides – Ernest, his father, his sister Ursula, brother Leicester and granddaughter Margaux. Hemingway’s youngest son, Gregory, lived a chequered life after having gender reassignment surgery, and was described by Ernest as having “the biggest dark side in the family except me.” He died in 2001.

In the show I was watching, the two surviving brothers, Patrick and Jack explained they had a friendly competition to see how long a Hemingway can survive for. An old documentary, Jack died in 1991 following heart surgery.

But it seems there may be an answer to their family’s plight, albeit a little too late…

Both Hemingway and his father’s behaviour became increasingly erratic in their later years. His father was extremely paranoid, locking all the drawers in his home obsessively and distrusting all those around him. Ernest followed suit as he reached old age, becoming constantly worried about taxes and the FBI’s investigations into him.

Checking himself into the Mayo Clinic, he was treated for hypertension with electroconvulsive therapy. It was here that they discovered that Hemingway suffered from hemochromatosis, an overload of iron in the blood that causes mental and physical deterioration.

Exacerbated by his drinking, this was certainly a strong contributor to Hemingway’s suicide. What’s more, it was also revealed that his father might also have suffered with the hereditary disease.

Yet it’s not certain what exactly drove so many Hemingways to despair, with depression, the family’s secretive nature and other mental health issues also to blame.

The Hemingway memorial in Idaho

The Hemingway memorial in Idaho

You can find out more in Running from Crazy, a 2013 film by Barbara Kopple starring Hemingway’s granddaughter and actress Mariel Hemingway.

by Joe

A piece of bloodstained fabric

A piece of bloodstained fabric recently sold for $16,000 at a US auction.

I know what you’re thinking. What could possibly compel someone to pay that amount of money for something that unpleasant?

Well what if I told you that that piece of fabric was torn from the very sofa that Adolf Hitler was sitting on when he shot himself.

Suddenly it becomes much more interesting, doesn’t it?


The fragment of sofa from Hitler’s bunker in Berlin

The grisly memento was taken by a US officer who was among the first to enter the bunker below the Reich Chancellery in Berlin before it was filled in by the Russians. Apparently, it is now the site of a Chinese restaurant.

Most of us are aware of how the dictator spent his final days below ground as the city’s children were conscripted to hold off the inevitable advance of the Red Army, of the frenzied attempts to delay the inevitable up until the final moment.

The events were memorably dramatised in Oliver Hirschbiegel’s extraordinary film Downfall, which was based on the memoirs of Traudl Junge – Hitler’s secretary in the closing months of the war.

It is items like this, despite their obvious unpalatability, that take the past out of the history books and place it squarely within your hands.

From the shirt Franz Ferdinand was wearing when he was assassinated in 1914, held in the collection of the Austrian Military Museum, to a cloth dipped in the blood of the executed Louis XVI, there is an immediacy and revulsion that ensures these relics retain their power long after the event.

That Hitler died in the bunker is beyond doubt. His dental remains were identified, but as the auction house put it: “no blood relics of Hitler’s have ever been offered publicly – a DNA test would conclusively put to rest rumors of body doubles, flight to Argentina, and other theories of an escape from Berlin”.

Inevitably, there is a deeper moral issue that comes into play with the sale of memorabilia pertaining to the Nazis and Hitler in particular.

It is, however, the case that the majority of buyers of Nazi memorabilia are the Jewish community. Memories are short, but items that bring to life the darkest moment of European history offer a warning to future generations as the spectre of the second world war diminishes.


They’re still out there…

Four of them were never caught.

While mastermind Bruce Reynolds, Ronnie Biggs et al became household names after the Great Train Robbery, four members of the gang slipped into the shadows.

They could still be alive today, living off the profits of one of the most daring heists in history.

After all, only £400,000 of the £2.6m stolen that August morning in 1963 was ever recovered.

The daring of the raid, the subsequent manhunt and the high profile escapes have long fascinated me – and countless others…

…including collectors.

It’s why an original wanted poster for the train robbers auctioned for £4,500 ($7,500) earlier this year. It’s why the railway sign from Sears Crossing, where the plan was put into action, has a £10,000 ($16,700) estimate ahead of its sale next month.

Sears Crossing sign

Where it all began. You can bid on this original railway sign next month.

I’m firmly of the opinion that that estimate will be smashed, such is the public’s affection (yes “affection”) for the event.

“Am I one of a minority in feeling admiration for the skill and courage behind the Great Train Robbery?” wrote author Graham Greene in the Telegraph newspaper at the time.

We don’t have to look far for examples of memorabilia from other infamous crimes and criminals performing well at auction.

A wanted poster for Jesse James sold for $57,475 in 2012, the same year two guns found on the dead bodies of Bonnie and Clyde made $504,000, while we recently sold the personal collection of Britain’s most prolific hangman, Albert Pierrepoint.

And if you’re considering dipping a toe into the world of criminal collectibles, or “murderabilia”, do give us a call. We’re experts at sourcing the world’s rarest collectibles, although tracking down Jack the Ripper’s disembowelling knife may be beyond even our investigate powers…

Call +44 (0)117 933 9500 or email



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