focal point

The Selling of the Solar System
Some meteorites are more valuable than gold — and
that’s a shame, laments O. Richard Norton.


s anyone who reads the newspaper or browses
the Internet must know by now, meteorites are hot.
I’m not referring to what happens to them during
atmospheric passage. I’m talking about prices.
What used to be a small hobby served by a few dealers with
very limited supplies has mushroomed into a worldwide feeding
frenzy. Recent, well-publicized auctions of Mars rocks have attracted people not previously interested in the subject. Today
there are a growing number of collectors, along with more dealers to provide ever rarer specimens at ever higher prices — an
inflationary spiral not seen elsewhere in the economy. Some seek
only investment and expect a good return. Others, genuinely
hooked on the thrill of being
able to own a rock from space,
want to share their excitement
and knowledge with others.
Increased demand is good for
business, of course, but there is
a downside too. With some private holdings surpassing those
in many museums, collectors
now present formidable competition to research institutions.
The rarest meteorite types, coveted by scientists and collectors
alike, have the dubious honor of
being some of the most expensive commodities per gram in
the world. This is cause for concern among researchers and raises issues of government regulation affecting private ownership of meteoritic material.
In some countries, like Canada and Australia, laws prohibit
the export of meteorites. In others, any found meteorites automatically belong to the government, or it may be illegal even
to collect them. But such laws have never really worked, and a
steady supply of meteorites flows into the United States from
abroad, sometimes under dubious circumstances. The suppliers are labeled meteorite poachers, and the collectors who acquire the specimens themselves risk becoming accessories. Yet
this does little to curb the demand.
Some researchers fear that significant privately owned specimens will be lost to science forever. This is not unjustified.
Skyrocketing prices have driven many researchers and smaller
collectors (like me) out of the market, even as specimens
needed for study are disappearing into private vaults. For the
present, at least, most dealers do share important new finds
with scientists, allowing for documentation and some study.
And many private collections eventually wind up in research
institutions or museums, though sometimes going to the highest bidder. More often, these caches are sold to dealers, who in


October 1997 Sky & Telescope

turn make them available to the public and scientists.
Another fear is that private collections will not be properly
curated. Simply losing a meteorite’s label could mean the loss
of a valuable specimen. Further, many samples are inherently
unstable in the presence of oxygen and thus deteriorate at an
alarming rate if special precautions are not taken. It’s not necessarily true, however, that meteorites are best curated by institutions. I have personally examined some collections that are in
terrible disarray, but I have yet to see a private collection showing serious neglect. Private owners generally possess a passion
for meteorites that is not evident among a museum’s staff.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether collections are private or
institutional. What matters most, I believe, is preservation. Left
in the ground, meteorites ultimately become worthless hunks of
weathered rock. It is thus ironic that the most famous strewnfield in the world, surrounding Meteor Crater in Arizona, is off
limits to collecting. This is the
policy of Meteor Crater Enterprises (MCE), the agency responsible for operations there. A
forest of signs warns visitors
that meteorite hunting is illegal
(though there’s no specific state
law against it) and threatens
prosecution. Arrests have been
made over the years.
Meanwhile, the Cañon Diablo
meteorites, as they’re officially
known, continue to rust away.
Instead of allowing these irons
to deteriorate, MCE should
allow controlled commercial colJON CONRAD
lecting for a fee (or a percentage
of the take), thus preserving the Cañon Diablo meteorites and
making them available for distribution. The collectors should be
required to document their finds, thus adding to important field
data. Meteorites accumulated by MCE could then be distributed
to educational institutions.
Throughout history people have collected just about everything. No laws will ever change that. Collectors far outnumber
researchers, and amateurs are responsible for most new meteorite finds (Antarctica excepted). Laws prohibiting ownership
will bring this trend to a standstill — a greater loss to science.
The scientific community must look at the positive side of meteorite mania and take advantage of it. Collectors, private and
commercial, are preserving specimens for the future, and these
collections will ultimately be returned to the meteorite pool
for the benefit of all.
The former director of Flandrau Planetarium in Tucson, Arizona, O.
Richard Norton is working on a second edition of his popular book
Rocks from Space.
Focal Point invites contributions from readers who wish to comment on contemporary issues in astronomy and space science.

©1997 Sky Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.