Ary: Artifact sales an error

Saturday, October 29, 2005

WICHITA - Former Kansas Cosmosphere director Max Ary testified Friday that he built up a private space artifact collection through gifts from astronauts, salvaging unwanted items and engaging in undocumented trades of pieces that he had accumulated over the years.

Some of that collection was even incorporated into the Cosmosphere's collection after Ary brought it with him from the Noble Planetarium in Fort Worth, Texas, to Hutchinson in 1976, Ary told jurors in his federal trial.

However, prosecutors questioned whether Ary could prove he owned any space artifacts similar to the ones that were sold and showed that Ary signed the documents releasing Cosmosphere- and NASA-owned artifacts he later sold from the museum's collections.

Taking the stand in his own defense against charges he stole and sold artifacts from the space museum he helped co-found, Ary said he accidentally intermingled look-alike items owned by the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration with his own collection.

Ary has pleaded innocent to 19 charges against him, saying he would never do anything to hurt the Cosmosphere, which he called his "baby."

"At no time ... did I ever intend to cheat or do anything improper with the Cosmosphere," Ary said.

When he began selling off pieces of that collection at space artifact auctions in 1999, 2000 and 2001, the intermingling caused Ary to inadvertently sell pieces that he didn't own through his personal auction house account, he said.

At the same time, some artifacts he said he did own were sold to benefit the Cosmosphere, which reaped nearly $250,000 from artifact sales in 1999 and 2000.

However, Assistant U.S. Attorney Debra Barnett questioned whether Ary could show he had a collection at all. Cosmosphere officials who have testified at the trial have said they never heard nor saw the artifact collection Ary claims to have.

She also asked Ary to read the detailed descriptions he wrote for the auction catalog about each artifact he sold, where he summarized its role in space history, including a NASA-owned Apollo 15 mission tape that he sold for his own benefit.

In his write-up, he indicated that the tape was the one actually flown on the spacecraft, with Barnett suggesting that Ary knew a great deal about each item he sold.

Ary said he wrote those descriptions to market items for sale but couldn't necessarily distinguish one tape or film from other similar items in his collections when compiling them for sale.

"I dealt with tens of thousands of flown items," Ary said.

Witnesses for Ary have said he brought items with him or received them from NASA officials and astronauts, some of which Ary said were inventoried into the Cosmosphere's collections by student volunteers.

Ary said that he acquired many artifacts without any documentation because that was how "things happened" at that time.

Barnett then asked Ary if the only proof of ownership he had was his "word."

"That's a good word," said Ary, who indicated that he cared greatly about his reputation.

Ary also testified Friday that astronaut Charlie Duke gave the Cosmosphere a flag for Ary's personal use. He also said that the three boxes of Cosmosphere-owned items that wound up in his Oklahoma City home in 2003 were supposed to be sold in the Cosmosphere's gift store but accidentally moved with him instead.

Ary claimed he had also acquired some items after the Cosmosphere cleaned out a warehouse its artifact stores were being moved out of, literally picking items out of the trash.

He told Barnett that he never picked those items up intending to sell those items, but later sold some for his personal benefit at auctions, including spacesuit components that brought him $8,500.

Ary estimated the he sold $190,000 worth of artifacts in sales during 1999, 2000 and 2001. A NASA investigator testified earlier this week that Ary made $65,000 from selling Cosmosphere and NASA artifacts.

The Cosmosphere president for more than 26 years, Ary indicated that he first made mistakes with the space museum's artifacts in the summer of 1999, when he rushed to put together a slate of artifacts for the Cosmosphere to sell at an October 1999 auction.

At the same time as the sales, Ary said he faced a flurry of events in his personal and professional life - including his role in the recovery of the Liberty Bell 7 capsule and the health of his parents, who died later that year - that left him feeling "burned out."

Ary said he then decided to sell off pieces of his space artifact collection as a gesture to his wife, Jan, that he would spend more time putting his family first.