- The Washington Times - Monday, March 29, 2004

GARDNERVILLE, Nev. — On U.S. Highway 395, which cuts straight through this little town, Dennis Hope sells undeveloped land for the bargain price of $19.99 an acre.

Not a neighbor in sight, all the way to the horizon. Granted, there is no air and no water. The daytime high: 225 degrees Fahrenheit. The nighttime low: 245 degrees below.

Behold the moon, Mr. Hope’s real estate boon.

Millions already have purchased prime parcels. They have nicely framed certificates to prove it.

The moon seller is a former actor, ventriloquist, purveyor of mobile homes and one-time deli-counter worker. By lightning turns, he is blunt, verbose, defensive and testy.

“I believe with every particle of my being that I’m selling property that belongs to me,” he says. “We believe what we’re doing is real.”

Lunar Embassy, licensed by the state of Nevada, boasts 2.5 million property owners in 80 countries. More than 1,300 corporations have purchased plots, including Safeway supermarkets in Great Britain, which resold 20,000 lots to grocery shoppers.

“I don’t consider myself to be a scam artist,” Mr. Hope says. “I don’t consider myself to be anything other than a businessperson that has found an opportunity.”

His back is ramrod straight, his elbows planted, his fingers drumming the walnut veneer of a conference table. He looks as if explaining what he does constitutes a monumental waste of his time.

“I’m no different than any other businessperson in the world,” he says. “The only difference is the product that I sell doesn’t exist here.”

Mr. Hope is not the only man to lay claim to the moon.

In 1996, retiree Martin Juergens of Germany said his family rightfully owned the moon because in 1756, Prussian Emperor Frederick the Great presented it to his ancestor, Aul Juergens, as payment for services rendered.

In a rush to exploit the moon by exploration, other firms are competing to develop commercial space travel. One La Jolla, Calif.-based company plans to crash-land there within the coming months — or perhaps years — carrying a cargo of business cards, ashes, messages or anything else people will pay to have shipped.

In countries including Canada, Japan, Kazakhstan, New Zealand, Romania, Russia and Sweden, Mr. Hope has sold “ambassadorships” to local businessmen for a one-time, minimum fee of $75,000. Under contract to Lunar Embassy, the “ambassadors” are obligated to sell a specified number of properties per month.

In Romania, for example, Adi Dragan of Bucharest says he’s sold about 200 plots in two years at the rate of $49 for 70 hectares (172.9 acres). That’s enough, says the 33-year-old, for him and his wife, paralyzed from a work injury, to get by in his poor country.

He thinks he has the right to sell celestial properties because of the 1967 United Nations Outer Space Treaty.

The treaty decreed outer space the “province of all mankind.” Article II says that moons and planets are “not subject to national appropriation,” meaning, Mr. Hope says, that individual appropriation is fair game.

U.N. legal officers say Mr. Hope’s claim is without merit. But in Nevada, selling land you cannot walk, drive, fly or boat to is perfectly legal.

“Some people in Nevada might argue that our jurisdiction extends to the moon, but we don’t really think that,” said Tom Sargent, spokesman for the state attorney general.

But selling the moon has landed some of Mr. Hope’s overseas associates in a heap of trouble on Earth. At least two have been jailed on fraud charges.

In Amsterdam, Rene Veenema landed behind bars, accused of fraud and forgery for selling Lunar Embassy moon plots without a contract with Mr. Hope. For years, the Dutchman sold parcels for $1,600, saying they were Lunar Embassy properties.

But they weren’t, says Mr. Hope, who reported Mr. Veenema to Dutch authorities.

“I conned them all,” Mr. Veenema told a Dutch newspaper after his 2003 arrest. He has promised to repay his customers and to “learn to stop lying and cheating.”

Lisa Fulkerson of Chatham, Ontario, in Canada faces trial there on fraud and theft charges accusing her of deceiving investors and conning a bank out of $600,000 while operating as Mr. Hope’s Canadian ambassador.

After her arrest, Mr. Hope sued her for $2 million, accusing her of violating her Lunar Embassy contract by promising investors she also had the contractual right to sell moon properties in America.

The United States, he says, is his territory.

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