• Former Cosmosphere director Max Ary.

Max Ary indicted on 11 counts for missing artifacts

Friday, April 8, 2005

Max Ary helped build the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center he co-founded from a tiny planetarium into an internationally known space museum.

But the former Cosmosphere president, who left the museum in 2002 after 27 years there, now is being accused of stealing and selling property from the very institution he brought a long list of prized artifacts that include the Apollo 13 and Liberty Bell 7 capsules.

Following a nearly 18-month investigation into items missing from the Cosmosphere, federal prosecutors in Wichita on Thursday announced an 11-count federal grand jury indictment against Ary, 55, of Edmond, Okla.

According to the indictment, Ary took dozens of space artifacts from the museum - owned by both the Cosmosphere and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration - and sold them for his own gain.

If convicted, Ary, now president of the Omniplex Science Museum in Oklahoma City, faces the prospect of prison time, large federal fines and the repayment of more than $80,000 in proceeds he received from sale of artifacts.

"We are prosecuting this case on behalf of NASA and others who have entrusted valuable historic artifacts to the Cosmosphere's keeping," U.S. Attorney Eric Melgren said.

Ary couldn't be reached for comment Thursday, but his attorney, Lee Thompson of Wichita, issued a statement saying: "Ary intends to defend his innocence against any charge that he harmed the Cosmosphere or the federal space program."

"Mr. Ary's defense will certainly contend that his action in dealing with tens of thousands of space items during his tenure at the Cosmosphere complied with the policies of the Cosmosphere's Board of Directors," Thompson said.

Ary's initial appearance is set for 9:30 a.m. April 27 in Wichita U.S. District Court before Magistrate Judge Donald Bostwick, according to online court records.

Members of the Omniplex board, which hired Ary during the summer of 2002, also defended Ary, stating they consider the situation to be "a dispute between the Cosmosphere and Max" and would continue to support him.

However, a news release issued by the museum later in the afternoon indicated Ary would be taking a leave of absence from his position at the museum to fight the indictment. Don R. Otto, senior director of core programs, will become the museum's interim executive director.

The indictment stems from a spring 2003 audit conducted by the Cosmosphere after it was asked by a Johnson Space Center official to renew agreements covering items on loan from NASA.

During the audit, Cosmosphere officials discovered a significant number of artifacts owned by NASA and the Cosmosphere were missing or were handled improperly, according to the indictment.

Many of the items were sold at private space artifact auctions in California through an auction house called Superior Galleries in 1999, 2000 and 2001.

Ary, whose name was attached to the sales of the items, "maintained almost exclusive control over the artifacts," prosecutors said in the indictment.

Cosmosphere officials said last year that some of the more than 100 items stolen and sold have been recovered, but federal officials weren't saying Thursday how many had been taken or returned.

More than 30 items are detailed in the indictment as stolen.

The court filing details four auctions from October 1999 to May 2001 in which Ary allegedly sold 92 items for around $180,000, with all proceeds, minus commissions, deposited in his own personal account, the Associated Press reported Thursday night.

Collectors who have been identified as purchasers of stolen items have been contacted the NASA Office of the Inspector General and asked to voluntarily return them, according to a letter obtained by The Hutchinson News.

Robert Pearlman, the founder and editor of collectspace.com, said he surrendered an artifact he purchased from Superior Galleries last year and has received no word on what might happen to it.

Of the 26 artifacts loaned by NASA to the Cosmosphere that Ary is accused of taking, six were sold, seven were traded to other collectors and five were loaned without NASA's permission to other museums, including three items on loan to the Omniplex museum where Ary now works.

Having initiated the investigation, senior Cosmosphere officials were hardly surprised by the news of the indictment - but Ary's successor, Cosmosphere President Jeff Ollenburger, said the indictment still marked the "most difficult day" in the museum's history.

"This is not an uncommon thing in the museum community," Ollenburger said. "It's a shame that this is a reality we deal with in this line of work."

Ary, along with the late Patty Carey, transformed the Cosmosphere from a small museum and planetarium into a prestigious space museum with one of the finest collections of space artifacts in the world. The museum grew from a two-person operation to employ more than 700 people and attract 285,000 annual visitors.

Upon Ary's departure in 2002, Cosmosphere officials and space experts praised him as a visionary.

Pearlman said he hopes Ary's accomplishments, which included being collector-friendly and participating in discussion on Pearlman's Web site, won't be entirely forgotten now that his alleged crimes have become public.

"His accomplishments should be weighed against his accused wrongdoings," Pearlman said. "If he is found guilty, it will be difficult for me to know how to balance both sides of Max Ary."