When selling second-hand watches there are a few items that come up frequently that are not what people think they are. The most commonly misidentified watch is the Omega Speedmaster, a watch worn into space by the Apollo astronauts during the late-1960s and early-1970s. Later the moon mission had a special factory engraving on the back stating that it was the "watch worn on the moon". For the unknowing private owner, such an engraving could be understood to mean that this specific watch was worn in outer space. Sadly though, the marketing engraving specifically signals that it was not a watch worn into space, as only watches without that engraving were worn (and fewer than 100 total pieces ever made it out of the atmosphere in that period).
One day, while I was working at Sotheby's auction house in New York, a call came in from a woman who claimed to own a watch that was worn in space. Immediately I was suspicious as we received calls like that every few months and every few months I had to explain to the owner that their watch was not worn into space. When I spoke to this client, however, I asked a few questions to get more background on her and the piece itself. It turned out that she had received the watch from her father, Donn Eisele, one of the three astronauts who went to space in Apollo 7 in October 1968. He had worn this watch into space, had kept it after he returned to Earth and had left it to his family after he passed away in 1987.
I was very interested by this story and we agreed to meet so she could show me the watch.
She arrived at my office with her brother and mother, Eisele’s widow. They showed me the watch, which looked like a rather typical Omega Speedmaster from the mid-1960s except it had an official government-looking serial number engraved to the side of the steel watch case. The watch also was a very unusual and short-lived model that was produced only for a few months. It was during this small window that NASA had purchased their watches. Because of the short production run, such watches rarely appear in the market as there are only a handful of them. I quickly realized this was probably exactly what the family said it was and something that would be wonderful to sell in auction.
The history of NASA and watches worn into space is totally fraught and interesting. Back in the 1960s and '70s, when the Apollo program was active, NASA didn't really take much care to secure items that had been in space, not knowing the strength of the collector market that would follow. Astronauts were always allowed to take small items on their flights so they could give them out at promotional events when they came back (small things like souvenir flags, stamps and patches), but the agency generally didn't ask for utilitarian items like watches to be returned after the flights, not seeing them as valuable (the watch probably cost less than $50 when it was new in the late-'60s). As a result, most of the astronauts kept their watches and frequently wore them every day they were back. Such was the case with Eisele and his Omega.
By the 1980s however, it became clear that there was a strong secondary market for these "space watches", so, in an effort to control the trading of these pieces, NASA claimed that all the watches worn into space actually belonged to the agency and were only "on loan" to the astronauts (many of whom had been wearing the pieces for many years).
We had a dilemma for the auction because if the watch was authentic and had actually been worn into space by Eisele, as his family believed, it was technically something that we could not sell (as Eisele's family technically didn't own the piece), but if it was not a watch that was worn into space it would not have any significant value. I found was that there had been no watches from the Apollo program sold in public before, simply because NASA had always stepped in and taken pieces back from the families or the astronauts themselves before they could be sold.
I found a document from NASA that listed all the serial numbers of all the Apollo-era watches that NASA had owned. This was simply a list of serial numbers and the corresponding astronauts for each of those numbers. Each astronaut actually had two numbers, two watches assigned to him. The Eisele watch in questions was serial number 38 and when I looked on the NASA document that specific number was missing -- numbers up to 37 were listed and numbers 39 and higher were also listed. There was, however, another watch on the list, number 34, listed as being worn by Eisele.
There was disappointment to not find specific confirmation on the list, and seemed to be simply a strange bureaucratic omission. When compared to images of other NASA watches in museum collections, this watch still did have the correct NASA serial numbers on it (and was being sold by the family as a piece that was worn in space. This family part was the most important factor, as in space memorabilia, the word of astronauts and their families serves as final confirmation about authenticity.
A few days later we found a photograph of Eisele taken on the day of the launch in 1968. In the shot he is sitting in the pre-launch room dressed in his space suit about to go into the Apollo capsule and wearing two watches at the same time, one on each wrist. It would seem one of those watches was number 34 and the other one was our piece, number 38. We could now see that he wore two watches into space, even though only one of them was listed in the official government paperwork.
We quickly contacted NASA about this development, telling them that although the watch was not in the serial number ledger, it was almost certainly the right piece. Much to my surprise they told me that because the serial number wasn't in their archives (on that listing), they could not claim it as their own, but also could not block the auction of the piece.
This was an incredible development. We basically had a watch that, although we couldn't be totally sure of its history, was almost certainly worn into space. Due to a strange clerical omission on a government record it could not be totally authenticated as truly a space watch, however it could also not be blocked form being sold.
We went ahead to sell the watch and it brought a tremendous amount of interest from Omega and space memorabilia collectors alike. The final price was $205,000, which to that point was the most expensive Omega Speedmaster ever sold in auction. It was clear that after all our hard work with fleshing out the background of the watch, we found two interested collectors who believed, as we did, that this was the watch that Donn Eisele had worn into space on the Apollo 7 mission.