By Kerry Rodgers
Stacks Bowers May 20 Rarities Auction contained a remarkable rarity: a U.S. cent that had orbited the planet 206 times. It did so in 1965 aboard the Gemini VII space capsule.
And it wasn’t any old cent, it was a 1793 Flowing Hair cent with a wreath reverse and vine and bars edge. It came graded NGC EF-45 BN giving it a current market value of $25,000-$30,000. In the light of its history, it went to the block with an estimate of $25,000-$50,000.
In the early days of the U.S. space program astronauts often took personal items as souvenirs on their missions. NASA formalized this practice by allowing astronauts to take a small bag known as a Personal Preference Kit (PPK) with each item checked out by NASA. The contents were limited by necessity and were generally quite private. Only once have the contents been made public.
In recent decades a number of these items have been offered for sale. A few were coins, generally of low value. Clearly the item being offered by Stack’s Bowers fell into a different category. Further it had never been included in any PPK but was surreptitiously slipped into the inflight medical kit of Gemini VII without NASA’s knowledge.
The person responsible was flight surgeon Howard A. Minners. He had placed the cent in the kit at the request of owner William Ulrich. On Dec. 15 Minners wrote to Ulrich, “I hope you are enjoying the thought that right now your 1793 cent is in orbit.” A second letter of Jan. 25 written on NASA letterhead certified … “that a 1793 United States wreath cent” ... “was carried into space in the Inflight Medical Kit aboard the Gemini VII spacecraft.” This letter was signed by Minners as well as Command Pilot Frank Borman and Pilot James Lovell. Subsequently Ulrich received a color photograph of the coin in the medical kit taken some four hours after Gemini VII had splashed-down on Dec. 18, 1965.
After the coin’s return to Ulrich it was displayed in April 1966 at a few banks in Mississippi. It then disappeared from public view until sold in 1972 to William Fox Steinberg for $15,000 in cash and real estate. It was resold in 1977 to an anonymous collector and displayed at the September New England Numismatic Association Convention in 1980. In February 1987 it was sold to Paul Sims for $20,000 and then passed through unknown intermediaries before ending up with the current anonymous consignor. The Stack’s Bowers sale was the first time it had been offered at auction.
The coin came housed in an NGC holder that noted the coin had completed 206 orbits around the Earth as part of the Gemini VII mission, the longest time any astronaut – or cent -had spent in space up to that point. It was accompanied by extensive documentation including Minners’ original letters.
Apart from its historical value the coin is impressive. The strike is sharp with strong details. Individual strands of Liberty’s hair are clearly delineated as are the peripheral devices on both sides. The planchet itself is remarkably smooth with a chocolate brown patina. There are no post-production “distractions.”
The auction catalog commented, “This historic item is truly out of this world and deserving of a price that reaches toward the stars.” It did. After attracting spirited bidding on May 20 it hammered for $70,000. With buyer’s fee added it splashed down in a new home for $82,250.