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Want a ride into space with Jeff Bezos? This Boston auctioneer has your ticket

RR Auction in Boston has become the go-to for space memorabilia. Executive vice president Bobby Livingston held the upper hatch of a 1968 lunar module.
RR Auction in Boston has become the go-to for space memorabilia. Executive vice president Bobby Livingston held the upper hatch of a 1968 lunar module.Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

What’s it worth to take a 10-minute ride into space with the richest person on the planet?

That answer will emerge from RR Auction, the Boston auction house that’s been charged by Jeff Bezos’s space flight company, Blue Origin, with auctioning off a seat on a capsule that will catapult the Amazon mogul 60 miles skyward on July 20, then parachute gently back to Earth.

As of Thursday afternoon, the high bid for the seat was $4.2 million, according to RR Auction, a small firm with a big reputation among collectors of space age artifacts.

The firm will broadcast the final auction live on YouTube Saturday.

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RR Auction has sold hundreds of items related to the US and Russian space programs, including rocket engines, antique Hasselblad cameras used by astronauts, and even the personal wristwatch that Apollo 15 astronaut Dave Scott wore on the moon. That treasure was sold for $1.6 million in 2015 to an anonymous Florida collector.

“The most expensive thing we ever sold,” RR Auction founder Bob Eaton said of the timepiece.

RR Auction has found a niche for space gear, cemented by the online auctions of space memorabilia it holds twice a year. Avid buyers include executives of major technology companies who came come of age during the Apollo lunar missions.

“These are the guys that watched, on television, Neil Armstrong walk on the moon,” said RR Auction’s executive vice president, Bobby Livingston, “and they grew up to change the world.”

RR Auction also deals in plenty of earthly artifacts. The company auctioned an original Apple I computer for $325,000 and a pair of guns belonging to notorious 1930s bank robbers Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, which went for $500,000.

And RR Auction made national news last month when it sold a handwritten letter from Albert Einstein, part of a collection from the estate of physicist Ludwik Silberstein. The Einstein letter went for $1.2 million.

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Whatever Blue Origin gets for the ticket, the bulk of the proceeds will go to Club for the Future, a foundation designed to encourage young people to get into science, technology, engineering, and math.

The auctioneer will take a 6 percent cut — at least $252,000 based on Thursday’s high bid.

Blue Origin declined to comment on how it picked RR Auction for the job. But Eaton said it was because his company was willing to do whatever it took to satisfy Blue Origin, which insisted that the final phase of the auction be conducted live and online.

Eaton said he came to his work as a merchant of cosmic collectibles quite accidentally. He got into the trade with a focus on more traditional keepsakes.

He started in 1976, as a 19-year-old who loved yard sales and historical artifacts. When he saw a newspaper ad offering to sell a big sports memorabilia collection, he talked his grandfather into putting up the money.

“I think they wanted $2,000 for the collection and my grandfather was able to buy it for $1,600 or $1,800,” Eaton said. “My grandfather told me it was coming out of my college money. I had no intention of going to college.”

Working out of his parents’ basement, he taught himself how to sell off the items he’d purchased, and how to restock with items that were most likely to grow in value. He traveled to conventions and flea markets throughout the eastern United States, buying up collectibles of every kind, including comic books and phonograph records. Whatever would sell.

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Eaton began the transition to auctions in 1995 and went online in 2002, But RR Auction only began dealing in space items in 2011. “I had a client in the UK that had a gigantic space collection,” he said. “Had to be a million, a million and a half dollars. And he said, ‘Do you want to do a space auction?’ ”

Eaton was reluctant. The collection included some remarkable pieces, like an American flag that had orbited the moon during Apollo 11, and a dime that had been carried aloft without authorization by Mercury astronaut Gus Grissom.

But Eaton knew nothing about the market for space stuff. However, he hired some expert consultants and began to school himself.

“The astronauts themselves began calling us,” said Livingston. “They became our clients. We would sell their tchotchkes and things” — flags and other small items they’d carried along on flights.

“That really builds your reputation,” Livingston said.

In 2011, RR Auction made headlines when it sold a Playboy centerfold image that had been smuggled on board Apollo 12 — the second manned mission to the moon — for $21,000.

While many space collectibles come at a high price, Gary Piattoni, an appraiser and occasional guest on the TV series “Antiques Roadshow,” said many other items are far less costly. The cheapest objects are usually those that were built as prototypes or spare parts and were never actually shot into space.

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Even some launched items carry modest prices. “Tiles from the space shuttle, bolts from the space shuttle, all kinds of patches and things . . . those are fairly common and they sell maybe in the hundreds.”

On the other end of the scale are items that flew on Apollo missions to the moon. Such stuff costs “anywhere from ten or twenty thousand dollars up to half a million dollars, or more,” said Piattoni.

Regular buyer Lawrence McGlynn, 67, said he’s spent about $400,000 over the past two decades on space collectibles. He’s also an adventure buff who’s scuba-dived to the sunken wreck of the ocean liner Andrea Doria, and at Bikini Atoll, where the US military tested hydrogen bombs.

So of course the Metro West resident put in a bid for a ride on the Blue Origin rocket. He knew his “mid five figures” bid wouldn’t be nearly enough, and besides, he suffers from clogged arteries. “My doctors would have killed me if I’d have won the seat,” said McGlynn.

Somebody’s going to win the rocket ride; even if no higher bid is offered on Saturday. But just how high could the bidding go? Don’t ask Eaton. “The Einstein letter, we thought $400,000 to $600,000. It went for $1.2 million,” he said. “I’ve given up predicting a long time ago.”




Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.