SPACE RICHES on the CHEAP
COLBERT from a PRE-WRITERS’ STRIKE SCRIPT — SKY IN FACT FALLING
“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 collectibles. 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 sale. 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 scientific.
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 object.” 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 for $5,000.
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 fraudsters: eBay. 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 treasures.”
“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 scientific paper.”
“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
“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 1902. 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 itself. “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 his life. “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 me.” 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 gram.
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 per gram. 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 PROBE’
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 with Earth. 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 we have.”
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 meteorites. “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 probes.” 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 Tempe. “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.”