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Reports that Apollo 13 commander Jim Lovell has been forced, under legal threat from the space agency, to return mementos he had hoped to put up for sale has thrown the spotlight on disagreements that have arisen over who actually owns the objects.

NASA have issued an official statement entitled Agency Will Work Cooperatively to Resolve Artifact Ownership Issues, in which Administrator Charles Bolden said: "Earlier today, I had a good meeting with former Apollo astronauts Jim Lovell, Gene Cernan, Charlie Duke, Rusty Schweickart and other representatives of former astronauts and agency personnel, where we discussed how to resolve the misunderstandings and ownership questions regarding flight mementos and other artifacts.

"These are American heroes, fellow astronauts, and personal friends who have acted in good faith, and we have committed to work together to find the right policy and legal paths forward to address outstanding ownership questions.

"I believe there have been fundamental misunderstandings and unclear policies regarding items from the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and Skylab programs, and NASA appreciates the position of the astronauts, museums, learning institutions and others who have these historic artifacts in personal and private collections.

"We also appreciate their patience and will explore all policy, legislative and other legal means to resolve these questions expeditiously and clarify ownership of these mementos, and ensure that appropriate artifacts are preserved and available for display to the American people."

Some have questioned why it has taken NASA the best part of 40 years to raise the issue when so much material has been sold openly at auction amid widespread publicity.

It is also not clear how the dispute will affect those involved in this area of the collectables market, but any uncertainty over ownership rights will not be welcome.

Bonhams New York are due to hold their Space History Sale in April. Their specialist, Matthew Haley, told ATG: "We are aware of the situation and are monitoring it closely so as best to advise our clients and continue these successful sales."