A photo of the lunar surface captured by Michael Collins in 1969 (photo property of NASA; all images courtesy Bonhams)

A pinch of dust from the 1969 moon landing has sold for over $500,000 at Bonhams in New York. The sale marks the first time a contingency sample from Apollo 11 is sold legally at auction, according to Bonhams, since NASA normally claims complete ownership of all lunar material. A 20-year saga full of lawsuits and fraud allowed the rare lunar soil to go under the hammer.

In 1969, Neil Armstrong picked up a bit of moon dust, placed it inside a plastic bag, put the plastic bag inside a cloth bag, and brought it back to Earth. The dust that sold was taken from the seams of that cloth bag (moon dust is incredibly sticky).

The bag Neil Armstrong placed the moon dust in
The moon dust that was auctioned on Wednesday

Between 1969 and 1972, astronauts brought back 842 pounds of lunar material. The Bonhams moon dust, sold last Wednesday, April 13 as part of its Space History sale, comprises five samples for a microscope, set on carbon tape on top of the aluminum stubs used with an Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM). The carbon tape on each stub is less than half an inch wide.

Even this tiny amount of moon dust has caused a years-long battle. The dust belonged to Nancy Lee Carlson, a lawyer with an interest in geology, who bought it in a 2015 United States Marshals auction for $995. Carlson sent it to NASA to authenticate, but NASA seized the bag after they realized it was from Apollo 11. Carlson sued, the bag was returned to her, and she sold it for $1.8 million at Sotheby’s in 2017.

However, NASA had kept a portion of Carlson’s moon dust to sample under a microscope. Carlson sued again, and five out of the six samples were returned to her.

The moon dust is on the carbon tape on top of the microscope sample stubs.

The story of how Carlson acquired the dust in the first place is even more bizarre. After Armstrong returned to Earth with the bag, it was loaned to the Cosmosphere space museum, a Smithsonian affiliate in Hutchinson, Kansas, an hour’s drive from Wichita.

The museum’s director at the time, Max Ary, was found to be stealing and selling museum artifacts. In 2006, he was convicted on charges of theft, fraud, and money laundering and sentenced to three years in prison.

When the FBI raided Ary’s house, they found multiple stolen objects, including Armstrong’s bag. However, the bag was confused for something else, and its value went unrecognized. As a seized asset, it was listed in a US Marshals auction, where Carlson bought it in 2015.

Despite its fascinating backstory, the hammer price for Carlson’s moon dust fell short of Bonhams’s pre-sale estimate of $800,000 to $1.2 million.

The US government claims all ownership of lunar material and has gone to great lengths to recover it from private citizens, most notably in 2011, when NASA seized lunar material from a 74-year-old woman who was trying to sell it. The dust was the size of a grain of rice and hidden inside a paperweight. NASA conducted a sting operation at a Denny’s diner, sending in an undercover agent and detaining the woman in the parking lot.

When Armstrong’s bag containing the dust sold at Sotheby’s in 2017, some activists denounced the auction, calling it “lunar larceny.”

“The bag belongs in a museum, so the entire world can share in and celebrate the universal human achievement it represents,” Michelle Hanlon, co-founder of the group For All Moonkind Inc., said in a statement at the time.

Now that Carlson has sold all of her embattled moon dust, we don’t know when, if ever, the public will be able to buy the dust again.

Elaine Velie is a writer from New Hampshire living in Brooklyn. She studied Art History and Russian at Middlebury College and is interested in art's role in history, culture, and politics.