From the archive, originally posted by: [ spectre ]
SPACE RICHES ON THE CHEAP
COLBERT FROM A PRE-STRIKE SCRIPT — SKY IN
“ROBUST” METEORITE MARKET
BY Eric C. Rodenberg / 11/9/2007
NEW YORK – Darryl Pitt is often given to meteoric hyperbole.
“The meteorite market is unbelievably robust,” the curator of the
celebrated Macovich Collection, the world’s largest collection of
aesthetic meteorites in the world, says. “The market is absolutely
there, bigger and stronger than ever … We’ve finally penetrated with
our works into the art buying community.”
Despite his tendency for hyperbole, there are times when Pitt’s
unbridled enthusiasm can be well warranted. A case in point is the
Oct. 28 Bonham’s auction of these weird and wonderful intergalactic
The 53-lot sale brought $750,000, with more than half the lots selling
above their high estimates. The sell-through rate was 93 percent, with
the average lot selling for more than $12,000.
It was the first auction ever devoted solely to meteorites.
The well-heeled bidders spanned the planet, with those in the auction
room competing with bidders on the telephones from Canada, Europe, the
Middle East and Australia, as well as throughout the United States.
There were 75 bidders in the auction room, with the phones “just going
crazy,” Pitt said.
“The results were stronger than anticipated with near perfect
results,” Bonhams meteorite specialist Claudia Florian said after the
Some of the lots originated from the United Kingdom’s Natural History
Museum or the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, but the majority
came from the Macovich Collection in New York, built up by Pitt and
other enthusiasts whose interest in the stones is as much aesthetic as
For his part, Pitt can wax poetic on the subject of meteorites.
“They’re works of art from outer space,” Pitt says. “They’re truly
aesthetic objects, Georgia O’Keefe would love this work. Each one is a
one-of-a-kind special piece, created millions of years ago … they
contain the oldest matter known to man – stardust.”
Top lot at the Bonham’s sale was the Sikhote-Alin meteorite, described
as the epitome of an iron meteorite, which fell in Siberia Russia
during the largest meteorite shower in human history. Estimated to
sell for $55,000-70,000, the Sikhote-Alin fell into the laps of a
floor-bidding couple for $122,750. It was the second highest price
ever paid by a private collector for a meteorite.
All sales figures include a 20 percent buyer’s premium.
“This was just a spectacular piece,” Pitt enthused. “It has a
undulating groove to the top of it, and it just began to curve when
the intensive heat struck it going through the atmosphere. Then, the
curves began to soften when it cooled. It’s just a beautiful sculpted
piece … there will never be another one like it … it’s just a gorgeous
A slice of a meteorite composed of gemstones – dubbed the Glorieta
Mountain meteorite after its discovery in New Mexico sold for $82,750.
Again, it blasted away its estimate of $15,000-18,000.
Another aesthetic meteorite, estimated to be about one percent of all
“falls” by Pitt, was the celebrated Gibeon, found in Namibia, which
sold for $26,888. Another aesthetic “find” was a cluster of desert
glass found in Libya caused when an intensely hot asteroid struck the
desert floor and instantly transformed a mass of sand into glass.
Estimated to sell at between $300-500, it went to a private collector
Beyond the aesthetic, the Bonham’s sale also featured the “famous and
bizarre.” Within this category was the only known mailbox to have been
hit by a meteorite. Still showing its massive dent, the gun-metal grey
steel mailbox – which was struck outside a Georgia trailer park in
1984 – sold for $82,750. Spurred by heavy competition between private
collectors and institutional curators, the mailbox delivered a price
slightly above its estimate. A 5.5-gram slice of the meteorite that
caused the damage – pried out of the ground shortly after impact –
sold for $7,768.
A 23-gram slice of a meteorite which hit a car in Peekskill, NY was
offered with pieces of the car, selling for $1,673. The only known
meteorite involved in a fatality – a cow hit in Venezuela in 1972 –
sold for $1,564.
Conspicuously lacking in bids, though, were two of the world’s most
famous meteorites. A 28 pound crown piece of the 15-ton Willamette
Meteorite, found in Oregon in 1902, was withdrawn from the sale after
bidding ended at $300,000. It had an estimated value of $1.3 million.
Pitt blamed the failure to sell the crown of the Willamette on an
erroneous report in a West Coast newspaper.
“They reported that there was a pending lawsuit involving the
Willamette, and there wasn’t,” he said. “It was clearly a mistake, a
piece of fiction. Although the paper issued a retraction, the damage
was done. It just killed the auction for that piece. It was the
equivalent of dumping toxic waste into the auction gallery.”
Another piece, the Brenham Meteorite – the largest meteorite known
with naturally-occurring gemstones – also failed to sell. It was
withdrawn after it drew a top bid of $200,000, well short of the pre-
sale estimate of $630,000-700,000.
“I don’t know what happened to that one,” Pitt said. “I guess you
expect nearly anything at an auction.”
However, Pitt and Florian both maintain that Bonhams is negotiating
with prospective buyers on both pieces.
“Either one could easily be a centerpiece to any collection,” Pitt
says. “There’s still interest.”
Florian added: “We hope to conclude sales on the handful of unsold
lots in the next several days.”
EBAY BECOMES A REAL METEOR MARKET
BY Kristen Philipkoski / 08.02.06
Lunar meteorites are so rare that scientists and collectors are
turning to unconventional sources, even one that sometimes attracts
Moon rocks have been in scientific demand since the Apollo program
first started carting them to Earth in 1969. But the 800 pounds of
astronaut-carried moon rocks and dirt became property of the U.S.
government — which is notoriously stingy in doling out samples — and
the supply dried up after the last landing in 1972.
Fortunately, some moon rocks have found their own way to Earth, and a
government-sponsored expedition began identifying lunar meteorites in
the early 1980s. In 1990, Robert Haag became the first private dealer
to stake claim to a lunar rock found at Calcalong Creek in western
Australia. That spurred fortune hunters to search for their own stony
The advent of online auctions fueled the meteorite boom, and today
scientists are going to the internet in search of study samples —
sometimes paying upward of $70,000 for a smallish rock.
“I check eBay pretty regularly, as goofy as it is to have to buy
samples from dealers,” said Randy Korotev, a lunar geochemist at
Washington University in St. Louis who has studied moon rocks for 30
years. “In a sense I don’t mind. I think these finders are doing a
wonderful thing for the scientific community. It’s far cheaper than
going to space and bringing the rocks back.”
Most dealers on eBay are reputable, Korotev said, because meteorite
dealers are aggressively self-policing.
Prospectors who want a stamp of approval for their meteorites register
their rocks with The Meteoritical Society (which presently lists 89
lunar meteorites) or the meteorite catalog at the Natural History
Museum in Britain. Finders must send several grams of dust from their
meteorite for analysis and registration. Without this authentication,
scientists can’t use information drawn from the samples in a
“Begrudgingly, most (dealers) cough up their amount because as soon as
it becomes official, in my opinion it becomes more valuable — it’s to
their advantage,” Korotev said.
Meteorites that don’t come from the moon also have value: A dealer in
Britain, Trevor George, has turned rock collecting into a $500,000-a-
year enterprise by selling these more-common meteorites, as well as
terrestrial fossils that go for about $45 each. He said his record
price for a rock is $5,000. About 40 percent of his revenue comes from
his eBay store, which he launched in 2001.
“It was good fun,” George said. “Then I eventually turned my hobby
into a multinational business.”
Many of George’s meteorites are from northern Africa, or from the
Nantan meteor strike recorded in 1516 in Guangxi, China. Scientists
who purchased some of George’s Nantan samples recently published a
paper in the Royal Society of Chemistry journal Chemical
Communications showing evidence that reactive, water-soluble
phosphorus was present on the very early Earth.
As with any eBay market, some sellers try to buck the system — though
unauthenticated extraterrestrial rocks are still less common than,
say, bogus sports memorabilia.
S. Ray DeRusse claims to have found lunar meteorites in Texas. If
that’s true, it would be the first such find in North America. DeRusse
recently put up for auction a small amount of dust from one rock for a
“buy it now” price of $75,000. The auction expired with no bids and
many skeptical questions about authenticity.
DeRusse said he believes scientists see him as a threat and want to
discredit his find.
“There is no legal nor moral requirement that we register samples with
the Meteoritical Society,” DeRusse said. “It does no compelling good
to us, the public, or the Meteoritical Society in submitting samples
to those scientists.”
But until he allows scientists to examine his rocks, DeRusse’s $75,000
asking price seems like shooting the moon.
HIGH END INTEREST
Meteorites attract art collectors
Space sculptures go up for sale at auction house
BY Pat Milton / April. 7, 2006
NEW YORK – The art world’s interest in meteorites has skyrocketed,
with collectors and curators buying up the outer-space rocks for
display in museums, galleries or on a cocktail table at home.
Next week, meteorite hunters will get a chance to bid for some of the
world’s most coveted extraterrestrial rocks when they go on sale at
Bonhams’ New York natural history auction.
Among the highlights are a small slice of the 15.5-ton Willamette, the
crown jewel of meteorites on display at the American Museum of Natural
History, and a 355-pound (160-kilogram) iron meteorite from Campo Del
Cielo, “Valley of the Sky,” Argentina.
These rare space sculptures have captured the imagination of the
public over the last decade, not only for their scientific richness
but for their natural beauty.
“Beyond matters of the soul, the inspiration for most art is in
nature,” said Darryl Pitt, primary owner and curator of the Macovich
Collection, considered the finest aesthetic meteorites in the world.
“For me, aesthetic meteorites are the closest approximate to being
able to behold that which is in the heavens.”
Among the meteorites at Tuesday’s auction — all from the Macovich
Collection — the small beveled slice of Willamette is expected to sell
for $8,000 to $10,000. The Willamette is North America’s largest
meteorite, deposited by the last ice age and discovered in Oregon in
The large “Valley of the Sky” iron meteorite, measuring 30 by 15 by
14.5 inches (76 by 38 by 36.8 centimeters), looks nearly the same as
it did when it burned through Earth’s atmosphere thousands of years
ago. Estimated at $40,000 to $50,000, its surface “thumbprints” are
evidence that it “tumbled, spun and corkscrewed in the minutes prior
to impact,” Bonhams said.
The auction house also is offering a lunar specimen of the only off-
white fallen chunk of the moon available to the public. Its presale
estimate is $5,000 to $6,000. “When a piece of the moon falls here on
its own, clients are always interested in acquiring it,” said Claudia
Florian, a gemologist and curator at Bonhams.
NASA possesses many pieces of lunar rock brought back from missions,
but they are not available for private purchase.
The auction also contains a small meteorite piece with naturally
occurring gemstones of olivine crystals and peridot recovered in
Chile, estimated at $2,800 to $3,200.
From meteoroid to meteorite
Meteoroids are pieces of rock, dust or debris traveling through outer
space. Meteors are streaks of light that suddenly appear in the sky
when a meteoroid from outer space evaporates in the earth’s
atmosphere. A meteorite is a meteoroid that reaches the ground.
About 30,000 distinct meteorites are known to exist in earthly
collections. Out of those, only 7 percent are iron meteorites, and
less than 1 percent are considered aesthetic.
The artistic meteorite market has skyrocketed over the last decade, as
demand has increased and the availability of the rocks has decreased.
Recent auctions of fossils, dinosaur eggs and meteorites held by
Bonhams in Los Angeles drew huge crowds and commanded competitive
bids, said Florian.
“E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” film director Steven Spielberg and Sheik
Saud bin Mohammed al-Thani of Qatar are among the avid collectors of
space sculptures, said Pitt.
But while meteorites have penetrated the art market, Pitt said the
public should not lose track of the scientific contribution meteorites
play in the understanding of the solar system and the origin of life
“It is not only a beautiful object, but it transcends that which we
know and are familiar,” said Pitt. “It is otherworldly, and to me that
is something romantic and fantastic.”
Meteorite Hunter Michael Casper
BY Greg Clark / 05 May 2000
Michael Casper’s entrance into the field of meteorite dealing was, in
a word, meteoric.
Six years ago he didn’t know there was a market for rocks from space.
Now he operates one of the biggest space rock dealerships in the world
in Ithaca, New York. By his count, he sells more than $1 million worth
of meteorites a year through mail order, at gem and mineral shows and
on the Internet.
Casper was an aggravated restaurateur when an advertisement changed
“I was thumbing through a magazine and I saw an ad of Robert Haag’s:
‘meteorites for sale,’ ” Casper recalled. The small promotion
surprised him because he thought the handful of meteorites in the
world were all at the Hayden Planetarium in New York, where he had
seen them as a boy. “I said to myself ‘Wow, I can own a meteorite?’
and I went out and bought a few.”
After that Casper just wanted more.
Running the restaurant that Casper owned with his wife had become a
nightmare. The couple bought the restaurant thinking it would be a
pleasant way to work for themselves. But the clientele at the eatery,
which was adjacent to Cornell University, was “abusive, hard-to-please
college kids,” Casper said. He hated the place. So when meteorites
burned into Casper’s consciousness, he saw opportunity, and he leapt.
“I took all the money we had out of the bank and out of the cash
register and bought as many meteorites as I could. And I sold them
all, and then took out a loan and bought a bunch more.”
His wife thought he had lost his mind, Casper said, but it was too
late. “I just did it. I was on fire, I was lit up. Nothing could stop
And for the past five years, nothing has.
Casper trades, buys and sells everything — from rare specimens of
crucial scientific value to commonplace stony meteorites that simply
have novelty interest. He recently engineered the purchase of the new
Martian meteorite, LA 001, which turned up last fall. Casper teamed up
with New York City meteorite dealer Darryl Pitt to buy the meteorite
and distribute it to various museum and research collections around
the world. By trading samples of Mars rock for meteorites that have
already been thoroughly studied, Casper was able to secure valuable
specimens he could sell, while ensuring that the rare LA 001 was
available to scientists.
The most popular meteorites lately have been pieces of Sikhote-Alin,
the iron meteorite that exploded above eastern Siberia in 1947. Small
pieces, the size that would fit in your palm, sell for $50 to $100.
But larger samples, pieces with exotic shapes fitting to be displayed
as sculpture can sell for that much per gram. (One ounce is equivalent
to 28 grams.)
This iron meteorite from Casper’s catalog is one of the countless
fragments from the Sikhote-Alin meteorite, which exploded above
eastern Siberia in 1947. More than 25 tons of material — less than
one third of the estimated original mass — has been recovered from
the area of wilderness where the meteorite fell.
“I have one that weighs about a pound with a hole in it, which I paid
over $10,000 for,” Casper said. That was a bargain at just $22 per
Prices vary tremendously based on the demand for various types of
meteorites. The most common stony meteorites sell for just a few
dollars per gram, while prices for very rare meteorites, such as
pieces of the moon or Mars, or especially beautiful meteorites can
reach hundreds of dollars per gram.
Unlike most meteorite dealers — who buy and sell in order to expand
their personal collection — for Casper it is all about commerce.
Except for the rare pieces that are so important that they need to be
saved for scientific research, everything he has is for sale,
Casper’s business practices occasionally irritate other meteorite
dealers. He is willing to sell large pieces at prices well below the
prevailing market value for that particular meteorite.
He did that recently with a rare and exotic type of meteorite called
diogenite, much to the irritation of other dealers who were holding
large amounts of the rare type and seeking a price between $40 and $60
With one sale of several pounds of diogenite at a price that some
report to be about half the market value, Casper single-handedly cut
the world price of diogenite meteorites, critics say.
“It just goes to show you, if you think you got it all, you better do
some research,” said stalwart meteorite dealer Robert Haag. Haag is
one of the few dealers who have been buying and selling meteorites for
more than 20 years.
The people who were stung when Casper undercut the market were those
who misjudged the availability of diogenite in light of several recent
finds, Haag said.
“The guys that held it too long blew it. They blew it,” he said.
“Because one guy had 7 kilos stashed away in Belgium, and he didn’t
want anybody to know about it. But in the meantime another 25 kilos
has been pieced out and distributed.”
It led to a price war that ended with a buyer’s market for diogenite,
Haag said. It could ultimately help everybody who wasn’t left holding
a box of it.
For Casper it was just good business: buy low, and unload fast for a
profit. To a large degree, the meteorite market is a speculator’s
business, a fact that other dealers acknowledge is just a part of life
in the meteorite trade. You can’t count on the fact that any price
will be kept artificially high to protect other trader’s investments.
“POOR-MAN’S SPACE PROBES”
BY Greg Clark / 30 August 1999
Scientists who study meteorites call them the keys to unlocking the
history of the solar system. The sun and its planetary satellites were
born out of a cloud of dust and gas about 4.5 billion years ago.
That’s a verdict reached from analysis of meteorites.
The asteroid belt that swirls around the sun between the orbits of
Mars and Jupiter was once a constellation of about 70 small planets.
How do we know? Meteorites say so.
“They provide us a snapshot of all of the processes that occurred in
the first 100 million years of the solar system,” said David Kring, a
planetary scientist and meteorite specialist at the University of
Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory.
That’s because the bulk of the objects that have fallen from space
spent most their histories in the deep freeze, essentially sitting out
of the game as the solar system’s principle planets and moons evolved.
Chemically, virtually nothing happened to these meteorites for
billions of years as they tumbled through space as asteroids. While
their chemistry was stable for all that time, the objects were
experiencing tortuous physical changes – colliding with each other and
gradually breaking down from 70 primitive mini-planets into the jumble
of objects that make up the asteroid belt. Some rocks were thrown into
erratic trajectories that eventually brought the pieces into collision
Chemically unchanged since the solar system’s prelude, they arrive on
Earth as veritable time capsules, bearing evidence about the primitive
solar system and carrying a record of their journeys through space.
“The same type of material accreted to form planets like the Earth,”
Kring said. “But the Earth, because it’s so big, and was able to get
so hot. It melted, and basically destroyed all of that chemical
evidence. So the fact that these have been so well preserved out in
that region of space is why we’ve been able to develop the story that
That story is surprising in the level of detail that scientists have
been able to piece together simply from studying rocks. One of the
facilities that supports much of this research is NASA’s Johnson Space
Center, which curates the collections of lunar samples, meteorites
found in Antarctica, and stratospheric dust. Everett Gibson, a
geochemist at Johnson has spent his career analyzing lunar samples and
“We are able to see in meteorites markers that reveal most of the
major processes in the life of the parent bodies — from the formation
of the crust all the way down to the interior. And iron meteorites, we
think, are samples from the core from the interior of these bodies.”
Until the Apollo astronauts brought back rocks from the moon,
meteorites were the only samples on Earth of extraterrestrial
material. These simple special-deliveries from outer space prompted
meteorite expert Carleton Moore to call them “poor-man’s space
That comparison is credited to Moore by Gibson, who studied under
Moore at Arizona State University in the 1960s. Moore is curator of
one of the world’s largest meteorite collections at Arizona State in
“Meteorites are the samples of our solar system and the cosmos which
are delivered to us at no cost, which we then have samples of that we
can study. And we do not have to launch a major exploration program to
get them,” Gibson explained.