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Unearthed E.T., Atari games approved for release to museums, auction block

The long-buried collection of E.T. and other Atari game cartridges unearthed in a documentary earlier this year will soon be bound to a museum in Rome, Italy, a series of auctions and storage in a space museum, the Alamogordo, New Mexico city council voted this week.

In a 7-0 vote on Tuesday, the city council approved plans for the distribution of about 1,300 cartridges, which includes 59 Atari titles and a number of copies of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, the famously poorly received 1982 game that some blame for the collapse of the early video game industry.

Those games, an assortment of 792,000 of them according to dig site manager Joe Lewandowski, were buried in the Alamogordo landfill at the orders of Atari officials who were struggling to deal with a glut of unwanted titles.

Over time that burial became a bit of a gaming fable, until earlier this year when Microsoft teamed up with the city to excavate some of those games from under an estimated 10,000 pounds of garbage.

In Tuesday's city council meeting, Lewandowski, who is also the vice president of the Tularosa Basin Historical Society, said that the primary goal for the games is for them to be shown at museums.

"The primary goal is that they go into museums  and the story be told," he said, according to a recording of the meeting. "The second is that they go into the city inventory for whatever we decide to do with them. The balance is what we will sell."

Lewandowski suggested that about 800 of the games be auctioned off on eBay in three lots to better help judge their value and also increase interest and bidding. The first auction, likely on eBay, will hopefully start in a couple of weeks, he told Polygon. Each auctioned cartridge will come with a signed certificate of authenticity, a metal inventory tag from the city and an information handout explaining the backstory of the game's burial in the "Atari tomb," he said.

When asked what the games were worth, Lewandowski said he wasn't sure, but that the city had already received at least one offer of $500 for one.

"Part of the problem is that the digging up of these games is a unique situation," he said. "No one has ever done anything like this before and no one will probably ever do anything like this again. Yet on eBay [E.T.] is worth nine bucks a piece. But that's not a game that is part of this legend.

"There are a limited number of those. We thought we were going to get 30,000 or 40,000 games, there's 792,000 down there, but we got 1,300 and one hundred of them went to the film company so that's increased their value."

Alamogordo mayor pro-tem Robert Rentschler asked if the games had been tested to ensure they were safe after being buried in a landfill for so long. Lewandowski said they weren't but that the film company spent $12,000 to make sure that the burial site wasn't hazardous.

With the distribution plans for the cartridges approved, the next step will be the historical society working with the New Mexico Museum of Space History in Alamogordo to properly inventory the games, catalog them, seal them and produce certificates of authenticity.

Lewandowski said the group also wants to put together collections of games from the landfill in packages that they can then lend out to interested museums. Already, the city has heard from one in Rome, Italy, he said.

Approved museums will be lent a small collection of games, controllers, game components and pieces of consoles uncovered in the dig. The will also receive a series of photos showing the burial site, the transportation and even the warehouses where the games came from. Museums will also receive information about the process. The idea, Lewandowski said, is to allow museums to create their own exhibits about the dig.

After spending four years, which stretched through four mayors, and four or five city managers, fighting to obtain the rights to dig up the Atari tomb, Lewandowski says that he's happy to be involved in telling the story as it comes to a close.

"It's kind of surreal at this point," he said. "This will never happen again. The city won't allow it. The state won't allow it."

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