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The historic red and green arming and safety plugs from Little Boy – that carry ink signatures and notations made by Morris Jeppson, weapons test officer of the Enola Gay who entered them for sale – were part of a remarkable series of objects that relate to mankind’s first use of atomic weaponry offered for sale in San Francisco on June 11.

But did Butterfields, who estimated the pair to bring $150,000-200,000, have the right to sell them? The US Justice Department, no less, claimed prior to the auction that the internal configuration of the plugs – that resemble large cigarette lighters in a car – was classified information, adding that the plugs were the government’s property, not that of the Enola Gay crew member.

It asked US District Judge Susan Illston to block the sale hours before the auction despite not taking any action to try to obtain the devices in 1994, when they were displayed at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

The sale went ahead – the plugs selling to a San Diego man for a premium-inclusive $167,500 (£118,800) – but pending the outcome of litigation, Butterfields held onto the tags until a hearing the following Friday when Judge Illston ruled that the government’s case was without merit. “I don’t think you’ve made any showing, literally coming in here at the last moment. There is not a national security issue involved,” Illston said.

Clay Perkins, a San Diego physicist-turned-real estate developer, who bought the two thumb-sized devices, said they had great personal and historical value.

He said the idea of nuclear power inspired him to embark on his first career as a physicist. “They are arguably the most significant physical objects to come out of the 20th century,” said Perkins, 68. “They are the only thing left of the first atomic bomb.” He also added that it would be impossible for anyone to develop an atomic bomb by examining the devices. “If anybody thinks that’s a state secret, they don’t understand science and electricity very well,” he said.

The June 11 sale also included an archive of material entered by Theodore ‘Dutch’ Van Kirk, the navigator of the Enola Gay. Van Kirk’s leather navigator’s valise, radio headset, flight computers and
A-12 sextant used to plot the course of the August 6, 1945 mission sold for $46,000/£32,625 (estimate $25,000-30,000), his Colt 1911 semi-automatic pistol made $31,625/£22,430 (estimate $25,000-30,000) while his navigator’s master clock and personal copy of the New Testament brought a further $37,375 (£26,500). Exchange rate £1 = $1.41