Monday, June 29, 2015


You can own meteorites, the remaining pieces of the early solar system.  They are swept up by the Earth in its orbit, and survive the long fall to Earth's surface.  Some can be identified as coming from Mars, others from Luna.  Some are fragments of comets.  Most are relics of shattered planetoids.

For our ancestors, meteorites were at once harbingers of the gods, and the most ready form of iron.  We know now that some contain amino acids – the building blocks of life – and some of those are not known in native form on Earth. 
The popular beginner's book
by "fallen star" Richard Norton
You can find reputable dealers for buying and selling. If you have the opportunity for travel, you can find your own craters and fall sites and strewn fields. Rarely, but possibly, you can find a meteorite by paying close attention to the ground beneath your feet. Whatever your interest and resources, you can assemble your own museum.

First the Bad News

A New York Times article for April 4, 2011, called them “Black Market Trinkets from Space.”
“…chunks of meteorites, bits of asteroids that have fallen from the sky and are as prized by scientists as they are by collectors. As more meteorites have been discovered in recent years, interest in them has flourished and an illegal sales market has boomed — much to the dismay of the people who want to study them and the countries that consider them national treasures.
“It’s a black market,” said Ralph P. Harvey, a geologist at Case Western Reserve University who directs the federal search for meteorites in Antarctica. “It’s as organized as any drug trade and just as illegal.”
Paperback 288 pages
University of Arizona Press, 1997.
The trend is for modern governments such as Turkey, Egypt, and Libya, to sue other modern governments such as the United Kingdom and the Unites States of America, for the return of “cultural patrimony”. 

By comparison, in numismatics, dealers and collectors often find  themselves standing against the interests of museums, especially those operated by governments. The Ancient Coin Collectors’ Guild was formed to lobby Congress, and to sue in courts for the rights of collectors.  And it is not just about coins.  Coins do signal to metal detectors, but they are only the most common artifacts of any Western civilization since 500 BCE.  Where you find coins, you find oil lamps, amphoras, and other ceramic household goods.

Patrimonial claims open many doors. The American Museum of Natural History was sued by a Native American council that claimed that the Willamette Meteorite was sent by the gods to communicate with their people before the arrival of other people on this continent.
New York, New York - June 22, 2000 -- The American Museum of Natural History and the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde Community of Oregon today signed a historic agreement that ensures access to the Willamette Meteorite, a world famous scientific specimen at the Museum, by the Grand Ronde for religious, historical, and cultural purposes while maintaining its continued presence at the Museum for scientific and educational purposes. The agreement recognizes the Museum's tradition of displaying and studying the Meteorite for almost a century, while also enabling the Grand Ronde to re-establish its relationship with the Meteorite with an annual ceremonial visit to the Meteorite.  (AMNH Archives here.
To my knowledge, no museum curator has spoken up for the numismatists.  However, the New York Times article cited above also included this quote: "We have a co-operative relationship with the collectors," said Monica Grady, a leading meteorite scientist at Britain's Open University. "We can't afford to go out and collect, but this small army of dealers will do it."

In 2012, the federal Bureau of Land Management created three licenses for people who want to hunt for meteorites on federally-held lands. 
                Casual collection of small quantities without a permit
                Scientific and educational use by permit under the authority of the Antiquities Act
                Commercial collection of meteorites through the issuance of land-use permits
(See Space.Com archives here.)

As with any collecting hobby, two axioms inform buyers and sellers alike: 
  1. Knowledge is king. 
  2. If you don’t know your material, then know your seller.  

Dealers formed the International Meteorite Collectors Association (here). In order to join the club, you must have recommendations from two members.  Their website is not completely clear on what that means, so I emailed an enquiry.  It means that you must have an established buyer-seller relationship with at least two of their members.  

The Meteoritical Society (here) was founded in 1933 by professional and amateur scientists in order to organize the study of meteorites and planets. 

Austin’s Russ Finney created a website to provide information. You can find others online.  Some dealers are members of several societies.  Again looking to numismatics as a reference point, if a dealer is a member of several societies, then that increases their social capital: they have more resources to lose if things go wrong. 

I bought my first meteorite about 20 years ago from an ANA member who advertised them under the “Other Collectibles” heading in the classified ads of The Numismatist. I received two more from a friend who teaches science.  She bought them from a mentor who opened a rocks and minerals store after he retired. 

Personally, I have not done business with any of the firms listed here. I offer them as benchmarks for the size of the hobby network.
Aerolite Meteorites
(Note that while the site is in the Dot.Org domain, the firm is incorporated as a for-profit enterprise.  The owner, Geoff Notkin, also owns the label as an LLC.  The accounting rules derive from his many activities.
"I am a science writer, meteorite hunter, and photographer, television host and producer, and have had the good fortune to participate in exciting expeditions across much of the world, in search of meteorites and other natural history treasures. I am host the multi award-winning TV adventure series Meteorite Men on the Science Channel and won two Emmys for my work in educational television with STEM Journals. I am a member of The Explorers Club, The International Meteorite Collectors Association, The Association of Applied Paleontological Sciences, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the International Dark-Sky Association, and the Society of Southwestern Writers."


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