Meteorites: our fascination with the ultimate antique
- August 24, 2022
- Maria Golia
They are more than just reminders of the universe’s origins. Meteorites have been a commodity for investors, a demonstration of the cultural capital of museums, and prized items for collectors the world over.
The oldest thing on Earth one can own, meteorites have been called ‘the ultimate antique,’ 4.5 billion years old and counting, the detritus of our solar system’s formation. In the same way that artefacts of ancient civilisations help reconstruct humanity’s past, so meteorites have shed light on the origin of our planet. And just as antiquities collectors, at first content with any hoary relic, soon sought to acquire the finest examples of ancient artistry, so have meteorite collectors refined their tastes. In addition to being something from long ago and far away, select meteorites are now considered objets d’art commanding prices in the tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars. A February 2022 online Christie’s auction (Deep Impact) featured Martian, Lunar and other rare meteorites, whose total sale prices amounted to over $1,200,000.
The consumerist craving for aesthetic and/or rare space rocks may be dated to August 7, 1996, when US President Bill Clinton stepped onto the South Lawn of the White House to comment on a dizzying scientific discovery: NASA researchers had found what appeared to be evidence of fossilised microbial life embedded in a meteorite from Mars named ‘AH84001,’ recovered during a US-funded meteorite-collecting mission to Antarctica. While cautioning his global audience that the research team’s results awaited verification, Clinton could not fail to note the prospects presented by the appearance, under high-powered electron microscope, of what looked like a minute version (one hundred times smaller) of a rod-shaped bacteria known to have existed on Earth 3.5 billion years ago:
Today, rock 84001 speaks to us across all those billions of years and millions of miles. It speaks of the possibility of life. If this discovery is confirmed, it will surely be one of the most stunning insights into our universe that science has ever uncovered. Its implications are as far-reaching and awe-inspiring as can be imagined.
Never had a meteorite prompted so many conversations. If Earth was not the only planet to have hosted life, how could we be sure life originated here? If it was instead delivered from Mars, would that make us Martians? Supposing Earth did not hold the patent on life, wasn’t it possible that other kinds of biogeochemical geneses had taken place elsewhere, under different circumstances? Had we not sold the universe short by claiming it all for ourselves? And was it now about to open to us in all its staggering multiplicity? Finding conclusive proof of life on other planets would spark a fire sale on preconceptions; the end of all anthropocentric preoccupations, including religion and philosophy and the beginning, no doubt, of new ones. The puerile politics of nationalism, ‘the measles of mankind’ as Einstein called it, would be unmasked, and a more responsible globalism would be the order of the day. NASA’s provocative findings did not, however, prove conclusive, and humanity was spared this great effort.
Instead, several months after President Clinton’s announcement, in a high-ceilinged room on Park Avenue, spotlights played over glass cases provided by Cartier, where three Martian meteorites sat atop plush black velvet mounds like many a fabled jewel before them. Guernsey, a Manhattan auction house, who estimated the three stones’ value at $1.5-2 million, was not the first to place meteorites on the block. Phillips, another New York house, had done so the previous year, as part of a more sober natural history offering, including dinosaur eggs, that garnered significant media attention. Thanks to AH84001, the Guernsey auction of November 1996 attracted far more.
‘People were again faced with the question’ wrote Arthur Hirsch for the Baltimore Sun, ‘that has haunted mankind since the dawn of consciousness: What’s in it for me?’ … [the Guernsey auction] reminds us that in America no frontier of human experience or imagination is so cosmic it cannot be packaged, hyped and sold.’ The Martian samples did not meet bidding expectations, but the auction-related hype planted a kernel of fascination in many a fecund mind. The 1998 release of Hollywood blockbusters Deep Impact and Armageddon popped and salted it, lending meteorites an appetisingly post-modern sheen. In parallel with the NASDAQ market surge, tech-savvy young investors began to ‘diversify into meteorites,’ making them the ‘collectible of the moment’ and driving prices sky high before the bubble burst.
The AH84001 sensation was not entirely responsible for the surging interest in meteorites, which had been growing since the 1980s controversy over the Cretaceous mass extinction, but it threw a recognisable pattern into relief. The 1990s rise of meteorites as commodity in many ways resembled the nineteenth-century frenzy of acquisition aroused by the discovery of ancient Egyptian artefacts a century before. Just as space age technology revealed the secrets entombed in meteorites, so had the mid-1800s invention of photography and the nascent discipline of archeology alerted the wider public to the treasures of bygone civilisations. Museums of every great capital, scrambling to enrich their antiquities’ collections as advertisements of their cultural ascendancy, likewise sought to expand their cabinet of meteorites, to demonstrate their commitment to natural history.
Antiquities’ collection was an imperialist contest, especially between the French and British, and national pride likewise motivated the collection of meteorites. When the founding director of Vienna’s Imperial Geological survey, Wilhelm Hadinger, sent a meteorite that fell in Romania in 1858 to the Vienna Natural History Museum, his accompanying note hailed the collection, the world’s first, as ‘a veritable jewel, a manifestation of the zeal, knowledge and perseverance of our Vienna, our Austrian fatherland’. Cash-strapped museum curators vied for prized meteorite specimens and kept a close count of who possessed what. In 1896, Vienna and London were neck and neck, with the former boasting 482 and the latter 476 specimens. America lagged behind. The Smithsonian did not start collecting meteorites until the 1880s and the American Museum of Natural History had just nineteen specimens until J.P. Morgan purchased and donated an extensive private collection in 1900.
Transporting king-sized antiquities from Egypt to Europe involved back-breaking manoeuvres and feats of engineering considered well worth the effort, since monuments like the obelisks raised beside the Thames in London and on Paris’s Place de Concord enhanced both urban aesthetics and national prestige. Likewise, no meteorite exhibit was complete without a ponderously large exemplar. The British received a 634-kilogram Campo del Cielo iron as a token of appreciation from the Argentine government for having acknowledged their independence from Spain. A frigate brought the prize to London in 1826, where it became the first large meteorite to be exhibited at the British Museum
Just as the growing demand for ancient artefacts prompted a reassessment of their value, resulting in legal decrees as early as 1835 (in Egypt) to prevent unwonted plunder, so meteorites became the subject of legislation, as their desirability to museums and collectors became apparent. Laws governing antiquities were (and are still) applied to meteorites. In the United States, meteorites are covered under the 1906 Antiquities Law; if found on state or federal land they become government property, if on private land, they belong to the landowner. Small meteorites were once freely prospected on federal land like fossils and minerals, but owing to the demands of scientists, hobbyists and commercial collectors, official permits are now required. Some countries forbid the export of meteorites. A 1970 UNESCO resolution to which 90 signatory nations adhere, allows for their recovery if illegally trafficked, as with other lucrative cultural properties including antiquities.
That meteorites should ignite the same entrepreneurial urge as antiquities or other precious goods is unsurprising. Following a 1794 shower of meteorites in Siena, locals did a brisk business selling them to English tourists — and when they ran out, the ordinary stones they substituted were presumably as well-received. The practice of such relatively harmless fakery has been known ever since enterprising residents of ancient Luxor furnished Greek and Roman tourists with faux scarabs indistinguishable from the genuine, 1,000-year older item. While meteorites, unlike antiquities, may be sliced and diced to augment the supply, they are still difficult to come by and more easily faked, especially when sold online. The financial loss to those acquiring phonies can be significant, and their online purchase, unlike acquiring ersatz antiquities from a convincing local in a fragrant bazaar, is memorable for all the wrong reasons.
Like antiquities, the most valuable meteorites are pedigreed; their provenance is known, their rarity a matter of forensic record, and their purchase best brokered though reputable dealers. And just as splendidly crafted ancient artefacts command high prices, so aesthetically pleasing meteorites are coveted collectibles accessible to the wealthy few. ‘Beyond matters of the soul, the inspiration for most art is in nature’ says collector Darryl Pitt, who placed several choice meteorites on the Philips Auction block in 1995, calling them ‘Natural Art Works from Outer Space’ and likening their sculptural forms to the works of Giacometti and Henry Moore. The Detroit-born Pitt conceived a fascination for meteorites at age thirteen when he visited Meteor Crater in Arizona. At the vanguard of meteorite collecting in the late 1980s, Pitt is primary curator of the Macovich Collection, comprising rare specimens of Lunar and Martian meteorites.
A music producer and professional photographer, Pitt helped glamorise meteorites by giving them a Pygmalion-esque makeover. Rather than mere documentation, his photographs are flattering portraits, reminiscent of both fashion and food photography. Pitt also packaged meteorites, creating in 1997 the ‘limited edition Mars Cube’ a 1/10 carat morsel of the Zagami (Nigeria) Martian meteorite hermetically sealed in a vial encased in a 2.5 inch Lucite block, an item that sold by the thousands. Pitt effectively branded meteorites, with those bearing the Macovich label attracting a roster of stellar buyers, including filmmaker Steven Spielberg, Bruce Willis (star of Armageddon) cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and Qatari prince Saud bin Mohammed al-Thani.
Just as the provenance of an archeological find increases the value of antiquities, a back-story enhances a meteorite’s desirability, giving the proud owner tales to tell whenever someone asks what it is. Storied meteorites placed on the block include bite-sized chunks of the Aigle meteorite from the 1803 shower that convinced a dubious scientific community that stones really did fall from the sky, and a piece of the venerable Ensisheim (Alsace) meteorite, whose 1492 fall was construed as a favourable omen to the future Holy Roman Emperor Maximillian in his battle with France. A piece of the Valera meteorite (Venezuela) found one morning beside a dead cow, ‘the neck and clavicle of which had been pulverised,’ was auctioned with ‘an official notarised affidavit’ naming the meteorite as the cause of death. This year, not the meteorite but a dog house struck by one in 2019, sold at auction for $44,000.
Certain chemical and mineralogical properties add to a meteorite’s allure, like the silvery geometries of Thomson Structures (aka Widmanstätten Patterns), with their octahedral crosshatchings of kamacite and taenite that appear when the polished surface of iron meteorites is washed with a nitric acid solution. These nickel-iron alloys were formed as the molten masses cooled in the vacuum of space, an infinitesimally slow process lasting millions of years. Some meteorites display striking regmaglypts, indentations in the fusion crust that were aerodynamically scooped from the mass by friction in flight and retain a sense of movement, like swirling tongues of flame cast in iron. The holes left in some meteorites from the disintegration of spherical inclusions are also considered highly aesthetic. An 81 kilogram rectangular meteorite that fell in Namibia had three large asymmetrical indentations that doubled for eyes and a gaping mouth, and was named in the auction catalogue ‘the otherworldly scream’ for its resemblance to Edvard Munch’s famous painting.
Deep-pocket buyers seem unperturbed by the contradictions that may arise when meteorites are presented as equally essential to science, art, and interior decoration. Aficionados maintain that high profile auctions have inspired legions of new hobbyists to hunt for meteorites, providing specimens for research that might otherwise have been lost to naturalisation, the process by which meteorites lose their cosmic chemistries to weathering, water and rust. But the issue of commoditisation cannot be so readily dismissed. Rare is the hobbyist who does not hope to find an unusually handsome or scientifically exotic treasure to sell at prices few research institutions can afford, and finders of more prosaic masses are apt to stay keepers. While raising the public’s awareness of meteorites, auctions resulting in major sales may also drive up prices.
The Vienna Museum of Natural History, for instance, paid a German dealer over half a million dollars (€400,000) for a 950 gram piece of the Tissint Martian meteorite in 2011, now an important feature of their superb permanent display. When asked if the price seemed a bit steep, Dr. Franz Brandstätter curator of the meteorite collection, shrugged and said ‘American collectors can reach into their pockets for a million dollars; we were happy to get it at all.’ Likewise, within days of the 2013 meteorite fall in Chelyabinsk, a Russian website dedicated to classified ads overflowed with offers of meteorites ranging in price from $20 to $3300. Some enterprising individuals even offered ‘a private tour of the crash site and sightseeing excursion of the destruction’ for $167, including airport pickup. Consequently, Russian scientists had difficulty obtaining samples. The site was scoured by locals who sold their finds to mysterious out-of-towners, who ‘refused to answer questions’ but had plenty of ready cash.
Meteorites have proved essential to the planetary sciences, with researchers preferring pristine, classified specimens such as those collected during the annual NASA-funded ANSMET Missions to Antarctica. Since it began in 1976, the Antarctic Search for Meteorites Program has recovered tens of thousands of meteorites that are shipped, still frozen, to the Johnson Space Center in Houston Texas where thin slices are prepared for distribution to researchers worldwide, free of charge. Although some aficionados trade meteorites for a living, the profit side is inconsequential to average hobbyists, who, like most collectors, tend to cling to every piece of their carefully assembled hoards. Some meteorite collectors prefer to search for their own specimens, whether consulting maps of known fall zones (‘strewn fields’), or simply scouring likely open spaces. This is yet another parallel between meteorites and antiquities: the adventure of a hunt for treasure and the triumph of the find.
There are professional meteorite hunters who pay taxes to their governments, possess an understanding of the pertinent branches of science, and nurture a profound respect for the forces of nature. Global positioning systems guide them to their hunting grounds, the strewn fields of our planet, where their metal detectors are set to work. The stars of television documentaries, authors of scores of books, magazine articles and blogs, meteorite hunters delight in sharing meteoritic minutiae as much as in their cosmic quarry, and their much-publicised exploits have attracted bands of followers worldwide.
Meteorite hunting is seen as an attractive sport, offering wholesome outdoor exertion alongside the intellectual stimulation and emotional thrills of the great unknown. The finds are nothing less than cosmic realia, mementos of a life barely touched by human experience. The narrator of G.K. Chesterton’s The Club of Queer Trades, surveying his ten fellow members, expressed the same sentiment that seems to drive meteorite-hunters and every other modestly-obsessed collector of space rocks:
To realise there were new trades in the world was like looking at the first ship or the first plough. It made a man feel what he should feel, that he was still in the childhood of the world.
Here, at last, is where meteorites differ substantially from antiquities. Although infinitely older, they evoke not the past but the future, something beyond our grasp yet still within reach. And in the place of appreciation for the achievements of bygone civilisations, they inspire a striving for discovery, the ever-new.