The only bits of the Moon available for private sale sold at auction at Sotheby's in New York today for the hefty sum of US$855,000. The three small shards of lunar rock were returned to Earth by the Soviet unmanned Luna 16 mission in September 1970 and were a gift by the Russian government to Mme Nina Ivanovna Koroleva, widow of Sergei Pavlovich Korolev, the "Chief Designer" and director of the Soviet space program.

Despite the fact that the Moon is only a quarter of a million miles away and has a mass of 74 million million million tonnes, Moon rocks are about as rare as you can get. Between 1969 and 1972, the six US Apollo missions brought back 842 lb (382 kg) of lunar samples while the three Soviet Luna landers sent back another 10.6 oz (301 g). That's about the same as a small moose, which might seem like a fair amount, but if you're in the market for a lunar paperweight, you're out of luck.

The problem is that, though small bits of Moon rock have been gifted by the US government as goodwill presents, all but one of the US and Soviet samples remain under the jurisdiction of the American and Russian governments and may not be resold by a private individual. Sotheby's says that, though some alleged Moon rocks have come on the market from time to time, they have invariably been either fakes or stolen.

The only exception to this are the Russian Luna 16 samples that have just been sold. Encased in a 5.1 x 5.1 cm metal block fixed to a base inscribed with "ЧАСТИЦЫ ГРУНТА ЛУНЫ-16" (SOIL PARTICLES FROM LUNA-16) and boasting a built-in magnifier, the three shards of feldspar crystals were collected by Luna 16, which was the first robotic probe to land on the Moon and send back samples by return rocket.

There's a fascinating backstory as to why these samples are an exception. Sergei Korolev was the chief driving force behind the Soviet space program until his death in 1966. A survivor of the Stalin terror and the Gulag, he rose to be the chief architect of the first generation of Soviet launch vehicles and was directly responsible for a string of firsts, including the first satellite, the first animal in space, the first man in space, the first woman in space, and many others.

However, Korolev's very existence was made a state secret and he never received the recognition he deserved, so, as a small compensation, his widow was given 200 mg of the Luna 16 samples outright as the thanks of a grateful nation. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the Moon rocks were auctioned at Sotheby's on December 11, 1993 in a historic first.

Source: Sotheby's