Sunday, 28 September 2008

Fallen Astronaut.

In April 1972, during CBS Apollo 16 launch coverage, sculptor Paul van Hoeydonck confirmed to Walter Cronkite that he was the artist responsible for the memorial sculpture known as the ”Fallen Astronaut”.  Placed on the lunar surface nine months previous, the crew of Apollo 15 had insisted that the name of the artist remain a secret for a year at least.

Following the revelation and in an attempt to boost the fortunes of the struggling Waddell Gallery in New York, owner Dick Waddell… in conjunction with van Hoeydonck, decided to offer a signed limited edition series of 950 “Fallen Astronaut” replicas to collectors at $750 each… with the intention of creating a second, cheaper series.

This was contrary to Apollo 15 Commander Dave Scott’s understanding of his “gentleman’s agreement” with the artist  - that there was to be no commercialisation of the piece. That however was not Paul van Hoeydonck’s recollection and production of the signed and numbered pieces continued… until that is NASA officials intervened.

Pressure on van Hoeydonck, Dick Waddell and Bruce Gitlin at Milgo/Bufkin (the manufacturer of the original piece and the limited edition) brought a premature end to the project.  Allegedly only 50 of the 950 replicas were made.

Paul van Hoeydonck retained all 50, gifting the majority to museums. One replica was given to the National Air and Space Museum and another to the King of Belgium. None were ever sold….or so we have been led to believe.

In April 2015, evidence to the contrary emerged when a replica purporting to be one of the limited edition was offered for sale on ebay. Numbered 200/950 the figure was offered for sale by the grandson of the late James T.Phillips Jr – an investment banker for J.P. Morgan based in New York and a collector of space artefacts and works of art. Mr Phillips had the means, the motive and the opportunity to make such a purchase.

Compelling evidence supporting its authenticity included a receipt of purchase from the Waddell Gallery and an accompanying certificate of authenticity signed by the artist Paul van Hoeydonck.

This find poses many questions not least how many were actually made and of those, how many were sold? Paul van Hoeydonck insists only 50 of the 950 replicas were completed and he can account for them all… suggesting perhaps that others were sold without his knowledge.

Sadly, gallery owner Dick Waddell passed away in 1974 aged just 50. Depression, divorce and financial worries had taken their toll.

Perhaps Dick Waddell had sold some privately in an attempt to alleviate his personal demons? Correspondence with the manufacturer has drawn a blank. Neither Bruce Gitlin nor Milgo/Bufkin is willing or able to confirm the numbers actually produced.

But when questioned about the replica figure exhibited by the National Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C,  the museum confirmed … “Stamped into the back of the head are the marks "c 1971." Marks that match all known authorised replicas… and this ebay find.

The artist himself is unwilling at this time to comment on the replica in question… pending the outcome of his own investigations. But it is evident that the controversy surrounding the work remains an irritation to this day.I doubt we will ever know for sure how many of the planned replicas were completed and subsequently sold but indications are that there may be more out there than we have been lead to believe.

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