Countdown for cosmic auction

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SOTHEBY'S, which has been active in the Russian art market since perestroika, is planning a sale of relics of the great days of the Soviet space programme.

Communist hardliners are likely to throw up their hands in horror at the perceived loss of Soviet heritage, which is probably why Sotheby's is not discussing plans for the auction, due to take place in New York this year.

But agents in Russia have been more forthcoming. Anna Shalayeva, of the company Visit which has been seeing cosmonauts and their families in the special cottage compound where they live near Moscow's Exhibition of Economic Achievements (VDNKH), said that about 15 spacemen had expressed an interest in offering their memorabilia for auction.

However no articles have had been handed over yet.

Other agents are seeking items at the Star City space complex outside Moscow. Visit is concentrating on personal objects, such as space suits, mission journals and the souvenirs cosmonauts took into orbit for good luck.

When news of the auction spreads, conservative elements are likely to accuse the organisers of trying to make money out of the cosmonaut heroes.

Such people are angry that the Cosmos Exhibition at VDNKH, which included space suits for dogs and specimens of space food, was put into storage some months ago to make way first for a venue for raves called 'Gagarin parties' (named after the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin) and then for a showroom for those icons of American consumerism - new Pontiac and Cadillac automobiles.

But the Russian space organisation Glavkosmos said items of real historical significance were protected by a law requiring a government licence for their export.

Sotheby's agents are checking that the items for auction really were taken into space by their owners. Some cosmonauts chose to take matrioshka nests of dolls into orbit for luck.

An official stamp on the base distinguishes a doll which has flown in space from one which has never gone farther than the Arbat, the Moscow street market where they are on sale for dollars 20.

Letters, page 16