Episode 18: Worldbuilding with Cassandra Hatton (Auctions)
There's more to an auction than a loud man talking real fast. In this episode, Cassandra Hatton and I chat about Biggie Smalls, the importance of keeping your receipts, and secret societies, among other things.
HOSTED by Moiya McTier (@GoAstroMo), astrophysicist and folklorist
Cassandra Hatton is a vice president and senior specialist at Sotheby's. She specializes in space artifacts, rare books and manuscripts, and hip-hop memorabilia (so cool!). You can follow Cassandra on Twitter at @the_lynx_eyed.
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Hello, and welcome to Exolore, the show that helps you imagine other worlds but with facts and science. I'm your host Moiya McTier. And I'm bad at making decisions. I'm an astrophysicist who studies planets outside of our solar system. Those are called exoplanets. And I'm also a folklorist who specializes in creating imaginary worlds. And this podcast is my way of sharing those worlds with you. It's time for another world builder interview episode where I invite another world builder to share their process with me. I also use these episodes to expand your idea of what world building can be, because it's not just useful for sci-fi and fantasy stories.
As a heads up, there's a pretty detailed description of suicide about nine minutes into this episode. If you don't want to hear that I'd recommend skipping from about 9 minutes and 15 seconds to about 10 minutes and 30 seconds.
My guest today has more than 15 years of experience selling and appraising rare books and manuscripts. She reminded the artsy world that science is more valuable than they thought, when she sold Feynman's Nobel medal for nearly a million dollars. And she organized Sotheby's first ever hip hop themed auction earlier this year. Please welcome Cassandra Hatton. Cassandra, want to tell us a bit more about yourself. But in your own words?
Absolutely. My name is Cassandra Hatton. I'm Vice President and Senior Specialist at Sotheby's Auction House in New York, where I wear many hats. I do books [and] manuscripts, my background is in Early History of Science - Galileo, Newton, that sort of thing. I also do History of Science and Technology sales that includes computers or scientific instruments or 20th century science, I do space exploration sales, which could be things that flew to the moon or things that belong to astronauts, and then I recently started up doing sales on hip hop, which seems totally unrelated, but I don't think it is.
Can you tell me how you think they're related?
I think the connection is in the people. I found that a lot of my clients who collect space and collect science [and] technology are also really interested in hip hop. It may be generational, a lot of the people that I work with are close to my age - I'm 42, and we all grew up listening to Biggie and Tupac and Wu Tang and I think a lot of people -particular[ly] people in the tech and finance areas who are very successful and have the means to buy expensive space things have found a lot of inspiration in hip hop. In terms of how I put auctions together - because that's really what I do; I go out and get objects that I think are really interesting that have really exciting stories, and I curate them into a sale. I figure out how all the objects connect to each other. I'm selling the story, and not the object. That's what the value is and so I think that there are lots of stories to be told in the history of hip hop. Like there are in space exploration - in the history of science and those categories are very different from say, impressionist art, or jewels or some of the other things that we sell - where everybody kind of knows what those things are worth. We've sold hundreds of thousands of those types of objects.
That's really awesome, because I think stereotypically, I would assume that the types of people who are interested in space manuscripts are not the same type of person who's interested in hip hop memorabilia. And it's so nice that you have this anecdata that I think is pretty reliable. Oh, it's where the money is, right? You have this data about where [people's] interests overlap and intersect. And I think that's really awesome.
Can you talk a little bit about how you got to where you are, cause I had no idea that this was a job until, you know, I saw it in a movie once or in a book, but how do you break into this world?
Most people, and this is kind of broadly, the art market break into this world because maybe you have a family connection. You know, I mean, this is the truth, right? Like, your parents have a big art collection, or you know somebody who works in one of the auction houses and [they're] able to get you a job and you've got the right internship and such that was not my path in any way. I had zero connections to the auction world. I didn't even know anybody who owned art growing up. I was taking a break between undergrad and grad school and got a job as a researcher for a rare book dealer in Los Angeles. And they needed somebody who had studied history and who spoke several languages and I thought, "I can't believe there's a job out there for me that's not an academic job. I can't believe it".
That's the dream.
Yeah, it was a dream. So I started there, and on my first day, they gave me a stack of books. There was like Hildegard von Bingen, the Salius [?], a bunch of Einstein manuscripts, and they're just like, "figure these things out". I was really lucky, because they just didn't have the time to think about it. They're just like, "just deal with this". That's where it started - getting my legs under me learning how to do the research and what to say about these types of materials, how to know if something's the first edition of a book or second edition - the tenth edition, or if it's had repairs, or anything like that. I had that job for about three years, then I was hired to work in a different rare bookshop. This was all in Los Angeles, I ended up managing that book shop where I really got business skills. I did the payroll, and I wrote the checks for the brands and, the electricity. I ended up being responsible for everything on top of doing all of the research. So I got to learn how to do management and run businesses; and I started my own business and eventually got approached by an auction house named Bonhams. They needed a book specialist. [They] moved me out to New York, and I worked with them. And at first I was just doing books and manuscripts. And there was opportunity. They were doing space exploration sales, the sales were not doing very well, they had been going for about four years before I arrived. So their first one did a million dollars. And then it was like 700,000.
And that's not doing very well?
I mean, it's so weird, right, because like, I'll never have a million dollars in my bank [account]. It's very strange, yes, but the average price for these auctions was dropping every year. And they were going to completely cancel them. And I said, "I'd like to give it a try. I don't know anything about space exploration, but I like to figure things out". And they said, "Sure, go for it". And the first sale ended up being really successful. And then the next one was more successful, and more and more and more. And that really got me going. I started to get known for doing these space sales. I was really fortunate, a good friend [and client] had approached me several years ago, they had purchased a manuscript by Alan Turing. He invented the first you know, digital computer, he didn't build it, it was in a book, but he invented digital computing, and broke the Enigma code during World War II. And this person had bought a manuscript by him that had never been seen before. Nobody had read it. It was a brand new discovery, and this person approached me and asked me if I would research it for them.
So at that point, they didn't even want to sell it. They just wanted to know more about it?
Exactly. They didn't want to sell it at the time. They just want to know more about it, and at first I said, "I don't think I'm qualified to do that. You know, this is like mathematics and computing. And you need somebody with a PhD in this area". And they said, "No, we think you're the right person". So we argued for a while, but then they said, "We'll pay you $5,000". And I said, "I'm your girl. Let's get to work".
I love that.
And I spent months I was very stressed out because they wanted me to write a formal, like 20 page research paper on this manuscript. I didn't know what that should look like. I had no idea. And that probably is why it turned out so well. I kind of approached it, like a history paper would be and my master's degree [is] in History in History of Science. And it ended up being fantastic. I was so stressed out, I did like 10 times more than I should have. And we discovered that the manuscript was about inventing a language for the computer he had invented. And he wrote the manuscript while he was at Bletchley Park, [it] had nothing to do with enigma. It was just kind of like his free time. "This is what I do for fun. I'm going to form my own computer language" kind of thing. I then convinced the owner to sell it. This all happened to be right when "The Imitation Game" was coming out.
The perfect timing.
Yeah. And I kept hearing, "Oh, they're gonna make this movie Benedict Cumberbatch, is in it". Now it looks like maybe it's going to win an award in which I said, "Okay, we have to do this. If you're going to sell it. This is the time", and it ended up selling for one and a quarter million dollars. Yeah. It's a lot of money.
So I mean, you did an amazing job. But I also want to take a moment to think about this, from Alan Turing's perspective, like this is something he did in his spare time and then like 100 years later, it's sold for more than a million dollars. I can't imagine.
Well, and the story with Alan Turing, so he was tried for crimes of gross indecency. He was caught with a male prostitute, which was illegal at the time and his punishment was to either spend the rest of his days in a mental institution, or be chemically castrated which is [he'd] get shot up with a bunch of estrogen and progesterone. So he chose the chemical castration and it was so horrible that he ended up committing suicide. The story around the suicide is, you know, we don't know for sure that this is the case. But when he killed himself by injecting cyanide in an apple and then took a bite of the apple and lay down to sleep. He was obsessed with Snow White. So the legend is that the logo for Apple computers is inspired by that right? Because it's an apple with a bite out of it. I'm recalling an early interview with Steve Jobs where he kind of like corroborates that, but then later on, he backtracks and says, "Oh, we didn't want it to look like a tomato. And so we put a bite in it".
Not to romanticize suicide, but that is a great callback.
Yeah, right? So he commits suicide, and the manuscript ended up in the hands of his favorite graduate student, which is the tradition in the UK. In mathematics, all of your papers go to your graduate student and they take up the helm and continue your work. That graduate student was Robin Gandy he, like Turing was gay, he was also worried that people would find out and he would have problems or, you know, befall the same faith that Turing did and Turing, when he was undergoing this treatment; his psychotherapist had him keep a dream journal. And those dream journals are at King's College, Cambridge. Now, if you wanted to read them, you could just go into the Special Collections there and take a look, I guess.
And anyone can do that?
There's a whole fantastic Alan Turing archive there letters and manuscripts and all sorts of things. So Robin Gandy decided - after Turing, committed suicide, that he would also keep a dream journal, and he didn't want anybody to see it. Of course, it was very private, he decided that the best place to hide it would be inside of this manuscript that I sold. And the manuscript was, you know, like a composition notebook with kind of the marbled covers and the black box bind. It's such an amazing story, Turing wrote on the first 45 pages, and then he flipped it upside down and wrote on the last 45 pages, so there are actually two different manuscripts that related to each other - two different facets of this kind of computing language that he was trying to sort out [and] sandwiched in between was a big section of blank paper. And so Gany wrote his dream journal inthere thinking anybody would pick it up and go, "ah boring math", and not look at it. So he kept that locked in his desk his whole life. And when he passed away, his graduate students inherited all his papers, and it took them 15, 20 years to go through all the bosses and they found that manuscript and ended up selling it to my client. I think it's a fantastic example of how suppression of who we are ... people having to hide their true selves, is such a disservice to humanity. I mean, people are now studying this manuscript that contains so much valuable information, and it was hidden from us because of homophobia.
Yeah, I think this is especially timely now because so many people are talking about the journals that people keep, right now, during COVID are the types of things historians are going to be reading in the future. And I think to a lot of people, me included, it's not totally clear what goes into that type of research. So can you tell me a little bit about how you actually figured all that out, cause that's some real detective work you did?
Well, whenever we sell something at auction, the first thing legally, we have to make sure that the person who wants to sell it has the legal right and full ownership to it. So that's where you start, how did you get this? Do you have a receipt?
Keep those receipts.
Always keep the receipts. I will tell you that the most like epic receipt story one time or maybe later today, if we have time.
Alan Turing, actually, in his will specified that Robin Gandy should get all of his mathematical papers. So when I wrote up the catalog for the auction, I included a photograph of the will, it's actually the strongest provenance I've seen for anything. So we'll do that if we need to pull people's wills, receipts, letters, insurance, you know, sometimes to prove that you own something, it [would] have been on your insurance policy for 20 years. There are all sorts of different ways. But that is, number one, what is the provenance?
And are all of those things in libraries? Are they online? Are you calling people up and saying like, "Hey, can I see your tax records from 1962"?
Yeah, the consigners typically have that documentation. Sometimes they don't. And so sometimes we have to call different archives or libraries to see what documents we can find. We have a trust and estates department with a lot of lawyers in it. I don't know how to go get people as well, but they know how to do. That's their job, but it's usually digging around in archives. So we have good relationships or you should have good relationships in my line of work with archivists and librarians and knowing what places to go for the information that you need. Sometimes you find out, people have things they're not supposed to have. And not usually because it's stolen, or not because they stole it, but maybe somebody a couple of layers up stole it or got it in a way that wasn't kosher. And then they inherit it and it turns out, they've got stolen goods. So there definitely been instances where I've helped people get what they have back to the rightful owner.
Oh, wow. Is there a statute of limitations on that, like, after so many years, it's yours anyway?
Um, I don't know. That's a great question. You see this with Nazi looted art. I mean, we have like a restitution department at Sotheby's. And there's a person who's a lawyer and a senior specialist in impressionist art. He leads the charge in getting Nazi looted artwork back to the rightful owners. And I mean, how long ago was that? So there doesn't seem to be a statute of limitations there. And many of the stolen items that I've come across were things that were stolen a long time ago, particularly for archives and libraries, things get stolen from archives and libraries a lot. Part of it is because maybe the institution didn't have the funding to have the database or the security measures or whatever it is. So a lot of times thefts aren't discovered until [decades] later. And that's usually what we find. We'll see a library stamp or book play, or some other evidence of ownership in a book, or maybe a manuscript that has been sold several times. And when things are being sold privately, it's easier to kind of hide that. But at auction, you know, we're announcing the sale to the world. And everything that we sell, whether it's privately or auction is run through the art loss registry database. So that's like, we have to make sure that we are not selling stolen things. But then there are a lot of things that don't even get entered into the art loss registry database, because maybe people didn't realize it was stolen. You're managing the collection of 20,000 rare books. You're [not] gonna notice that one was pulled off the shelf, if you don't have somebody doing a weekly inventory, or if the original inventory of these books was done 40 years ago and hasn't been updated. Who knows.
I mean, I can barely keep track of all the things in my house now and none of them are valuable.
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I want to talk more about how you design auctions because it seems like you do that in a really cool and careful, thoughtful way. But first, I need to know more about how auctions work. I know nothing. So can you give just like a little auctions 101?
Sure, people will contact us sometimes we contact people if we know they've got something that we think we can sell to them. But generally people will reach out and say, "I have this object." [It] could be a painting. It could be a vase. It could be a book or manuscript whatever it is, do you think it has value? And so we will give this person an auction estimate based on market comparison. So if you have a Picasso, we go back and we look at all of the other Picassos that have sold and compare yours to those Picasso's cool. So if you're bigger or bluer, or whatever it is, it's, we think it's 10-15 million rather than 8-9 million. From there, the object is sent to us in New York, or London or Paris or Hong Kong, wherever you happen to be located, we're everywhere in the world. [We'll] photograph it, you write up a description, we'll publish a catalog, we do an exhibition, and then we have an auction. And during the auction, people can call in over the phone and pre-COVID times they could actually come in person. What you've seen in maybe the movies is people holding up a paddle and number on it, that's exactly what happens, people can come in and hold up their paddle. Now people can also bid on the internet. Sotheby's has an app or something, you just swipe and buy things on your phone.
That's so dangerous. I love it.
It is. So the items are sold to the highest bidder. So you have something where the estimate is $3,000 - $5,000. The auctioneer might start the bidding at $2,000. And then he or she, unfortunately, we still have more male auctioneers than female auctioneers, but we're getting there, and so they'll keep taking the bids until there are no more bids, and whoever has bid the most wins the object.
It's particularly good for items that don't have a market history, it's how we discover what certain things are worth. There are items where maybe lots and lots of them have sold at auction, say a Picasso or a first edition of "The Origin of Species" by Darwin, lots and lots of those have sold at auction. So if you brought a first edition of "The Origin of Species" to me, I can tell you without having to do any research what it's worth.
So what's it worth?
Usually, a quarter million, and that rank. If it's a really excellent copy, conditions [are] nice - if it's a real first edition. There are all sorts of little what we call points, little details that help us distinguish a first edition from a second edition or third edition. They're descriptive bibliographies written about all sorts of different subjects. So we also just like pull out a stack of books to try to figure out what's going on. And we have a whole research library to be able to do our jobs for books and manuscripts.
Sounds like paradise, tbh.
But you know, first edition of "The Origin of Species" was published in June of 1859. And there are specific small spelling errors on specific pages. So you have to go through and look for those. And there are publishers, advertisements that are have specific dates. So there are all sorts of little things that tell you but if it is a true first edition in really great condition, you're looking at about a quarter million dollars.
And if it's something that hasn't been sold a bunch before?
That's why I love this business is because I love to discover new things about items that people don't know a lot about. And I love to tell the story about those items. And then I really get excited if people agree with me, "yes, this thing is important. And it is valuable". And it's a very capitalist thing, right to be like, "Oh, I'm validated by dollar signs", but -
It's what we live in.
Yeah, it's what we live in. And so for those things, when I look at an item that hasn't sold before, I think about not what the value of the object is, but the value of the story. Can I tell a $10,000 story? Can I tell a $50,000 story? Can I tell a million dollar story and how many people do I think will agree with me? Two examples I'll give where I was auctioning an item where nobody had any clue what it could possibly be worth? The most recent was Biggie's crown. We all remember that iconic photograph with Biggie. It was originally purchased for $6 - a plastic crown. And if you remember the photograph, the crown sitting on his head, kind of sideways, and it was too small. It had a foam lining inside and [they] actually had to rip the foam lining out to get it to fit on there. And the photographer took his photograph, amazing photograph. It's like one of the most iconic photos - period, but definitely the most famous photo in hip hop. And he kept that crown, the photographer. He held on to it up until a few months ago,
And Biggie died right after that photo was taken too right?
Biggie died four days after that photograph was taken. So it was the last portrait of Biggie as well. I did this hip hop auction in September [and] one of the things I didn't want to focus on or even acknowledge was people being killed. I really wanted to focus on the positivity of the culture and make them feel motivation. If somebody had passed away, I really tried to just minimize the mention of it. There's so many people out there that focus on that kind of thing, and I didn't want that to be the focus, but yes, he was killed four days later and this crown I see saw as a fantastic symbol of hip hop. It's so recognizable. My five year old son knows who Biggie is. Oh, yeah, and he knows Biggie. I mean, we live in Brooklyn so he knows Biggie. He's a huge name. So I knew that there would be a broad appeal for it. I've put an estimate of $200,000 - $300,000 on this crown, and then end up selling for just under $600,000. So a real markup from the $6 that Barron Claiborne, the photographer paid for it. But we told a story that was at least a quarter million dollars, you know, the story of the portrait and how iconic it was. And you know, it's something that has been used on T-shirts and prayer candles, and you know, all sorts of different types of merchandise. So that was an example of selling a story. Another great example, and this goes back to the receipt that I was mentioning to you. Last summer, on the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11, the first moon landing, we sold the only surviving original video recording of the moonwalk. And yes, the way that that recording was made, it's just like incredible. There was a lunar surface camera that the astronauts used, you know, that was attached to the outside of the LEM. Armstrong went and set it out on a tripod and filmed everything that was happening. And it was a special television camera because it was a live broadcast. And in order for that broadcast to work, the signals were sent back, there were three receiving stations, Australia, Brazil, and I think Southern California. And then those signals were bounced back to Mission Control. They were played live in Mission Control, and then sent back up to a satellite and out to the different television stations.
Wow, that's so many steps.
Oh, God I've left out two of them.
It's already impressive.
So when the signals were coming down from the moon, they couldn't just broadcast it directly, right? Like it had to be recorded onto a media. So the original media was 45 slow scan tapes, the data on slow scan tapes cannot be broadcast on television. So then they had to convert the slow scan case to the NTSC format. And that could be uploaded to the satellite and then broadcast over television. Now NASA had both the 45 slow scan reels, and the inverted NTSC reels in storage. They ... how do we put this diplomatically? They sold off a lot of the videotape reels in the 70s because the energy crisis was happening. And when you store film, you have to have it at a certain temperature, [it] has to be air conditioned, and it was expensive. And so the government needed to make cuts. And so anything that had to be stored [and] refrigerated, they dumped it and they figured, "We have the original slow scan tapes. We don't need the television conversion tapes". So they sold them as part of a lot of like 2,000 reels of videotape at a government surplus auction. And this fellow named Gary, who was a NASA intern; a very industrious young man saw that he could get these tapes in this auction, and it cost him $250 back in the 70s. Now an individual reel of videotape back in those days could itself be sold for $200. So he thought, "I'm going to buy all these. And I'm going to sell the reels individually to the local news stations", because you can just re-record over the tape [like] churches [who] record their services and just "sell as many as I can". So he bought this huge archive. And this isn't like NASA footage, mission footage, right? He didn't even look at what was on the tapes. It was just like these are tapes. So he's sellingthese off. He made a ton of money by himself like a Mustang or Camaro - whatever a 21 year old guy wants to buy. And his father saw these three reels of tape and said, "Gee, Gary these say Apollo 11 on them. Maybe we should set those aside". So Gary, sets them aside.
Thanks, Gary's dad.
Yeah, thanks, Gary's dad. Then Luckily, Gary also kept his receipt from the government. NASA auction. This is very important. Fast forward to the 40th anniversary of the moon landing. And NASA decides that they're going to pull video from the archives and do a special presentation, right? So they go to look for these 45 slow scan tapes and they are gone. Nobody knows where they are. They have no clue. And so they launched a worldwide search to try to find the slow scan tapes. They still haven't found them. They think that they were degaussed, which is a soft word for erased and rerecorded over. And Gary at that time, had reached out to NASA and said you know, "I think I've got the tapes you're looking for". And at that time, NASA wasn't looking for the NTSC tapes. They wanted the original slow scan tapes, once we realized that those no longer existed, what Gary had became the closest thing. And so he reached out when I was putting together our 50th anniversary NASA auction. And the first thing I said to him was, "what's the provenance? Where did you get these? What's the proof"? And he said, "Well, here's my receipt". I can't believe you kept your receipt from the 70s it's amazing. When we offered these, I put an estimate of $1 - 2 million dollars, because I knew we could tell a $1 - $2 million story. Everybody has heard of the moonwalk. Everybody's heard of Neil Armstrong. And when I think of the moonwalk, it is the only time that I can think of in human history where the whole world was united for a good reason, where everybody was paying attention for a good reason, right? Everything else is a war or a pandemic or something. But that told me that we had a huge valuable story in the tapes ended up selling for $1.8 million. But you bet NASA called me and wanted to know, "does this person have proof of ownership? Like we need to see the documentation" because there are absolutely things that can't be sold without specific documentation. So luckily, I was able to go, "we've got the receipt, it's good".
Oh, that's so cool. I got so wrapped up in your story that I forgot I had questions. Back in the before times, when you could hold auctions in person. I mean, you can still do the online stuff, but what experience do you want people to have when they walk into an auction space that you've put together?
For people who feel like they belong there, you know, see themselves in the building. When I started working at Sotheby's, I did not see myself there. And so I wanted to democratize what we were doing. A. because I know our clients don't just like diamonds and paintings.
Yeah, they're people. They're real people.
Right. They are real people who like all sorts of different things and have a variety of interests just like you. And that's kind of going back to like, what's the connection between space and hip hop. It's like, "Well, I love space, and hip hop". There are all sorts of other interesting things that I love. There's a connection somewhere. So that was the first thing that was really broadened. When we had our hip hop sale, we had more black people in the building that Sotheby's has ever had, ever, and that was awesome. I did have moments of real anxiety, because we had an open exhibition in the middle of COVID, of course. And so many people were hugging me, because they were so excited. So on the one hand, I was like, "This is amazing". Like, that's the number one thing I go for is to see people smiling when they leave. I don't even care if people are coming in to buy I just want them to come in psyched about what's going on, you know, but also being like, "Am I gonna die? Because people are hugging"? So it was like the worst conflicted emotions because it was such great feedback. So many people walking through our exhibitions with just a massive smile on their face, and so many people walking out and so many people being happy, but also being like, "Man, I wish people would stop hugging me right now". [I was] so stressed out.
Was that the first in person auction since the pandemic started?
I think we've had a couple of others. People have to make appointments and be careful about how many people are in the building. But our gallery space is huge. And we have like, super amped up our HVAC and air circulation and such. So we're allowed to have people in the galleries, people come in 30 minute slots, and we're very careful about making sure that you don't have a bunch of people kind of bunched together. But we definitely had a lot of people coming in for the exhibition, a lot more people than we usually have. And it was the first sale of our season. And we usually have a lull over the summer. So people were like, 'yes". Typically, we have parties and receptions and dinners. We do all sorts of things. And we did have a virtual event. I moderated a panel with Dapper Dan. If you're familiar with him, he's the legendary tailor of Harlem so we had a panel discussion with him and Janette Beckman who is a photographer who helped document hip hop and punk and fashion and then a jewelry designer who is from Brooklyn, also named Johnny Nelson, who creates his own little worlds with his jewelry. He does these really cool sculpted rings that depict different figures in hip hop or LGBTQ pioneers - go buy his rings. That's just part of going to the topic of your podcast like world building. Part of what we try to do is we have an auction that tells a story. And then we try to have a lot of different events around it to kind of more fully flesh out what is going on with the sale. So it's not just you show up and you buy things. But here's some other stories that relate to what we're doing. And I always try to do that with an auction. When I do my space exploration auctions, I always invite an astronaut to come in and speak. The last sale, we had Rusty Schweickart, one of my favorite astronauts of all time.
I love that you have a favorite astronaut.
Oh, yeah. I mean, I love most of the astronauts. I've met a lot of astronauts. Fred Hayes and Al Warden and Alan Bean of most of the Apollo era astronauts I've met. Rusty is in his late 80s, but he feels like he's in his 30s. He's so progressive in the way he thinks and the way he approaches life. And he actually did the first spacewalk of the Apollo program, but he's just like someone you want to hang out with and talk to. Some of the other astronauts are still kind of "men of their era", [they] will be diplomatic about it. I definitely once had an astronaut smack me on the butt at an event. You know, it was a time where there was a lot of cigar smoking and bravado. And a lot of them came from very traditional family setups, you know, with the astronaut wives at home raising the children and they were the men out doing manly things. Rusty really does not follow that stereotype at all. He's also the only astronaut who was deeply involved in the Civil Rights Movement in the 60s, and he was supposed to have been a Moonwalker on Apollo 17. And many people believe that it is because of his involvement in the civil rights movement that he was asked not to be part of that mission. There's like a whole complicated rotation of astronauts and how they train them and how they line up the mission. He should have been on that mission. But his involvement with the civil rights movement did not coincide with NASA's, you know, vision of how things should be.
It remains today a little bit like that same mindset. Is that the type of thing that you incorporate into the story of the object? Because I often talk about world building as like creating an entire world, but it's also about intentionally creating and crafting an atmosphere and an experience for people. So is that part of the world that you build?
Yeah, it's contextualizing things. And I'm a firm believer that objects should be properly contextualized. And you know, again, we're selling things. So I have to think about, "what context will make this object so for the most money", but I've seen things, for example, there was a von Braun manuscript that was offered in a books and manuscripts sale years ago, and it didn't sell because the story wasn't built up around it. Nobody was expecting it to be there, right? Like, you're not going to Wernher von Braun manuscript about the space program, but you put it in a space exploration sale where you've built out that world. And I ended up offering it in a space Vale and it's sold for a bunch of money where it hadn't sold previously, because of the context. And then we've definitely come up on difficult discussions. Two years ago, I sold the Nobel Prize and papers of Richard Feynman, who is a very beloved physicist, but also very problematic. There was criticism from some people about his character, you know, some of the misogynistic things that had come up in some of his books, which were all absolutely true. And that was difficult for me. I love Richard Feynman and I read all his books as a kid and found really major inspiration in them.
A lot of people did.
Yeah, a lot of people, Linda McNeil, I think it's her name. She wrote an article that was totally spot on about Richard Feynman, and [him] being a misogynist, and such.
Specifically in response to your auction?
The sale happened during the 40th anniversary of him winning the Nobel, so she may have just been writing it, and it was kind of like, on one hand, I was like, "Oh, my gosh, I know Feynman is the best", but reading it I was like, "yeah, a lot of these things are totally true". What do we do about this kind of thing, right? Because it made me think of my grandfather, who I adored, but who was also a man of his time and totally said misogynous things, and I'm sure did all sorts of awful but typical things, do I discount everything that he taught me? Do I ignore that? How do you handle that? And so that is a difficult thing to address in the auction world because, you know, for example, I sold those papers and the Nobel Prize for Firemen's family. And so I'm definitely not going to go into a whole thing about him being sexist when I'm, you know, handling the papers for his daughter who didn't think he was sexist. You know, she thought he was the best father anybody could ever have. And I met his grandchildren. And they just thought he was fantastic. So it's really difficult to address those types of questions in this setting they absolutely need to be and when we're able to we do it. But that was a tricky thing.
Do you want to talk about how you struck that balance? Or would you rather move on?
It similar[ly] goes back to hip hop. Now I'm doing physics and hip hop connections.
Everything goes back to hip hop,
Totally. When I sell these items, I try to focus on the person's accomplishments. So like in the case of the Biggie material, and I also had a bunch of letters by Tupac, I focused on what those objects meant and their context rather than the personal lives of the people who created those objects. So that's what I did with Feynman. Rather than talk about Richard Feynman, personally [I] focused on his contributions to science, the accomplishments are unimpeachable. The impact of what he accomplished can't be disputed. And we have to recognize that that is important. [A] different court for who people were personally, and I think that we're all in a place where we're trying to figure out what does it mean when somebody has done something important, but they were also a problematic person. I mean, that's like most of Western history, and we're reckoning with that right now as historians. Historians want to record all of it to make sure nothing is erased. So we can continually contextualize and recontextualize and take steps back and look at things. So it's [the] big important questions.
Yeah, you're right. We're reckoning with it now. And for what it's worth, I think you had a difficult task, and from how you describe it, it sounds like you did a great job focusing on the accomplishments and the impact that his work had - whatever he did, as a human, his contributions to the field are real.
I have just two more things. So I feel like I can't have this interview now without talking about the Nobel Prize in Economics that was just awarded to two auction theorists, which is really cool. So from what I understand about their research, is that the novel outcome of their work is that auctions go better for everyone for the buyer, the seller, the auction house when there's more information available.
And I'm wondering, if you found that to be true in your work?
Absolutely. We set out to be as transparent as possible. There is a reason why when we do appraisals, state tax donation appraisals, the IRS wants to see auction records as justifications for value rather than private sales. And that's because that transaction is done between a willing buyer and a willing seller. Well, to really be a willing buyer or a willing seller, you need to have as much of the information as possible. And when you're in a public setting, that is what happens, you announce the sale of something. And that gives people the time to speak up and say, "Actually, I know more about this", or "Wait a minute, this doesn't belong to you". And it sometimes happens. You'll offer something in an auction, the consignor - the person who's selling it will offer documents and say, "this belongs to me, and I have the right to sell it". And then someone comes out of the woodwork and says, "Actually no, that's not the case". So occasionally, you'll have legal disputes in advance of an auction, and then the item has to be put on hold until that dispute is resolved. But that is part of why auctions are better for everybody is because it's out in the open, everybody has the opportunity to say what they need to say, we'll get contacted by researchers that will say, "I have additional information about this item", or "it turns out that you're incorrect about this item", or whatever it is all of that information is there. And that is a much more transparent transaction. And not to say a private transaction isn't, you know, a safe transaction or isn't a transaction that can be a fair transaction. But the more public something is, the more opportunities there are for different people to voice their opinion or share information about something. Because otherwise, you know, say I took those moon tapes and offered them to somebody privately and said, "I think these are worth $2 million". They're going to go, "Why do you think that? What's your justification? Can you give us some market data? Can you show us what other moon tapes have sold for $2 million? Like how did you come up with that number"? Whereas in an auction setting, if you have multiple people bidding, then multiple people agree, then that's your proof right there.
That's amazing. And it reminds me of this discussion that we're having right now in the sciences about open access review, you know, putting papers on archive so that anyone can read it before. It's technically peer reviewed and then the traditional peer review process and I see parallels between an open auction and a private sale there. That's really cool.
Absolutely. The more people who have access to data, the better. If you are hiding data, you've got a reason. If you're hiding your test results ...
The last thing I want to do is give you the chance to brag about yourself, based on my research that I did before this interview, it seems like a lot of your auctions, a lot of your work starts with someone calling you up and saying, "Hey, I had this piece that I either want you to research or sell". But they're calling you. So there's something special about you and what you do. And I want to give you the opportunity to brag about what makes you so awesome at your job. What do you do that's different than your peers?
I think that, A. I will only sell something if I'm really excited about it. If I really love it. I'm a great salesperson. But only if I believe in if I think I'm selling you something junky, I can't do it. I can't fake it. I'm very honest about how I feel about things. And I get really excited. So I think that can be infectious. You know, I love giving tours, and I love pre-COVID days, we wouldn't have different high school programs come in like, "Sign me up for high school tours. Let's get kids in here. Let's get the elementary school kids". I think I approach it from that angle is like am I having fun. And this goes back to Richard Feynman, where he describes how he won the Nobel Prize. And how after he worked on the Manhattan Project, everything was so serious, because he was trying to figure out how to make the bomb and stop the war. And he was super stressed out and suddenly wasn't good at physics anymore. And it was really bothering him. And he made the decision to only work on things because he loved them. And because they were fun. And once he started doing that, that put him right on the path to the research that he did that won him the Nobel Prize, and that had a real effect on me. You will just be better at what you do. And I know everybody says, "do what you love". And you know, I love like most of the jobs I had were like working in the deli and bussing tables. And you know, it was just a constant hustle. And, you know, I remember being young thinking like, "yeah I wish I had the privilege of doing what I love, that would be great. But I gotta work. I gotta pay my bills", But you slowly but surely are able to build on "okay, I love doing this. I love doing this. I love doing this". And that's how I think of it is like building on something else. It's where I've gotten to the point where I can really just say, "I don't like that somebody else can sell it for you". I just want to focus on the things I love, do the things I love. And I was fortunate I think the first big thing that I sold that got a lot of attention was the Apple 1 computer that sold for just under a million. It's still the world record.
Thank you. That was kind of the first big thing I did. And from there, I was able to kind of leverage that to get the Alan Turing manuscript. Buyers thought, "Well, if she can sell an old computer for that much what could she do with this"? And then [the] Alan Turing manuscript I was able to leverage it in something else. And so I think we all have to do that in our jobs in our life. A lot of us were raised with a mindset of "This is what you can do. You have a degree in history. So you can be a teacher, or you can be this. Your life is in this box". And I've never thought that that was how it worked is you have these kind of like zigzagging skills and zigzagging interests and drawing connections between those things is actually how we get ahead and get to where we want to be. I think everybody else is following that like straight line, like, "you should just do it like this". But the zigzag line, that is the quickest way to where you want to be. It's drawing those connections that maybe other people don't see, that makes sense to you. And I think that, you know, we're seeing this a lot where people may have degrees in humanities are working in the sciences or people who have science degrees are working in humanities. And it's important to have the different perspectives and the different backgrounds. So we're not looking at things from one angle. You know, you have much more interesting people, much better products, much better experiences, if you have people from diverse backgrounds doing things. I mean, this is like everything right? Like diversity.
Well, if I ever have anything super valuable that I can sell, I'll be contacting you. How can people find out more about what you do? Do you want people to follow you anywhere?
Yeah, I'm on Twitter and Instagram. My handle is @the_lynx_eyed. If you're wondering what the heck that means, that is a very nerdy reference to a 17th century scholarly society known as the Accademia dei Lincei, [and] it means "the Academy of the lynx eyed." The lynx is the animal that has the best eyesight, better than an eagle. And they supported scientific endeavors, most notably Galileo .They secretly funded his works in support of scientific progress in the 17th century. So that's where the handle comes from.
That's the best nerdiest handle I've ever heard. I love that so much. I'll include all of these links in the description box below so that you can go look at this amazing handle and then go follow the amazing person behind it.