IMCA Insights – April 2011
"Black-Market Trinkets From Space"
Article written by W. Broad and published by the
New York Times on April 4, 2011
by Anne M. Black
The ads are for 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."
Not so! Every year in February the whole Meteorite Community descends on
Tucson for two weeks. Within just one hotel, Hotel Tucson City-Center
(formerly InnSuites) I counted ten meteorites dealers with large banners
and ads on all the Bulletin Boards, and this is just one hotel during a
show that takes over the whole city of Tucson, a city of about 1 million
inhabitants. Other large mineral shows around the globe (Munich, Tokyo,
Sainte Marie aux Mines) also have a large number of meteorite dealers.
And the Ensisheim Show is only about meteorites, and this year will be
the 12th year that show has brought in collectors, dealers and a number
of scientists in that small town in eastern France. And if you do not go
to shows, you cannot miss the meteorites on eBay, 5,731 of them as of
right now (although, to be fair, quite a few of those are really
meteorwrongs!). You will find meteorites have been sold by the largest
and most reputable auction houses (Sotheby’s, Heritage,
Botham-Butterfields) for quite a few years now. There is even a rather
successful show on television, Meteorite Men, on the Science Channel. So
if this is your idea of a "black", "illegal" market it certainly is the
most widely publicized of them all.
To be fair, I called Dr. Harvey and asked him about his comment, and he
told me that he was only referring to the Gebel Kamil meteorite, and
"speaking of illegal activities…illegally obtained meteorites." He also
asked me to reassure the meteorite community that his comment was
certainly not meant as a general statement about the whole Meteorite
market. Here is what he authorized me to publish:
"To be most specific, my 'black market/drug trade' comment was a
small part of a response to Mr. Broad's expressed incredulity at the
volume of meteorites that have been removed from Northern Africa and the
scale of operations implied by Gebel Kamil online sales. Unfortunately
the author used a quote from me for dramatic effect; leaving out 40
minutes of context and leaving the erroneous impression that I think all
meteorite collectors are criminal. Nothing could be farther from the
truth - I have made a career out of meteorite hunting, working within
some of the strictest legal constraints (look up NSF regulation 45 CFR
Part 674, RIN 3145-AA40 in the US's Federal Register, Vol 68, No. 61,
p.15378 for a little light reading). I have no problems with legal
meteorite collecting and I am constantly impressed by the great number
of private (non-governmental) meteorite hunters who have chosen to
impose severe constraints on themselves where legal frameworks are not
NEW YORK TIMES
The discovery of a rich and historically significant meteorite crater in
southern Egypt, just north of the Sudanese border, has shown the
voracious appetite for new fragments. Just as scientists appeared to be
on the cusp of decrypting the evidence to solve an ancient puzzle,
looters plundered the desolate site, and the political chaos in Egypt
seems to ensure that the scientists will not be going back anytime soon.
The mystery began thousands of years ago with Egyptian hieroglyphs,
which refer to the "iron of heaven." Archaeologists have long debated
whether the Egyptians made artifacts from iron meteorites that fell to
Earth in fiery upheavals. The main evidence came from ancient knife
blades of iron that had high concentrations of nickel — a rare element
in the Earth's crust that was considered a signature of extraterrestrial
But doubts grew as investigators found terrestrial sites rich in nickel
that ancient peoples could have mined. And scientists in Egypt never
found an impact crater and a nearby lode of meteorites.
Then in June 2008, Vincenzo de Michele, an Italian mineralogist and
former curator at the Natural History Museum of Milan who had explored
the Egyptian desert for nearly two decades, was scanning the area on
Google Earth when he saw something unusual.
He told Mario Di Martino of the Italian National Institute for
Astrophysics in Turin, and together they formed an expedition that
surveyed the site in February 2009. To their delight, the desolate area
bristled with iron meteorites — more than 5,000 of them — and they named
the crater Gebel Kamil, after a nearby mountain.
The team members signed a note of discovery and put it in a bottle at
the crater's bottom. The find was a first. It was the only meteorite
crater ever discovered in Egypt — its mouth 15o feet wide — and the team
vowed to keep it confidential as long as possible.
But a return expedition in February 2010, found that the bottle had
disappeared. The secret was out.
A few months later, in June, meteorites from the crater were for sale at
a show in Ensisheim, France. In a review, the International Meteorite
Collectors Association called them arguably the world's "most
fascinating new iron find." The Egyptian rocks, it added, "received a
lot of attention."
In that review of the Ensisheim Show of 2010, it is also stated that "a
lot of decent size shrapnels" were available. According to the
Meteoritical Bulletin Database, about 1,600 kilograms of shrapnel
fragments have been recovered. I mentioned that fact to Dr. Harvey who
expressed surprise at that number: obviously he had not been told that
the pieces were that plentiful.
From the Meteoritical Bulletin
Popular or not, the meteorites were taboo. In Egypt and elsewhere,
scientists say, it is illegal without a permit to remove meteorites from
Not so! Egyptian law bans the exportation of all artifacts, regardless
of whether they are made of ceramics, iron, or Libyan Desert Glass. So
an artifact made of meteoritic material (an iron knife for instance)
cannot be exported but any mineral in its natural shape can. In fact all
the sellers of souvenirs around the pyramids or in Luxor are well aware
of that. When you approach them, they are eager to tell you that all
their pieces are authentic, found by themselves in a long forgotten tomb
far in the desert. But when you remind them of the law, they quickly
change their tune and tell you that those pieces are authentic copies of
authentic pieces found by themselves in a long forgotten tomb far in the
desert. It is actually rather amusing to get them twisted like pretzels
around their words. I discussed this with Dr. Harvey who expressed
surprise, as he had been assured that the exportation of meteorites had
been entirely banned by Egypt.
In fact there are few known, published, specific laws about the
searching for and exportation of meteorites. An
on this subject was published in "Meteoritics & Planetary
Science" in 2001. It is a good starting point. It does state for
instance that India decided that all meteorites found there were the
property of India in 1885, and that Canada and Australia require export
permits (Canada since 1977, Australia since 1986); but the article is
ten years old and therefore outdated. One obvious example not mentioned
in that article: Argentina banned all exportation of meteorites as of
January 1, 2008.
Incidentally, in the United States, when a meteorite falls or is found
on private property, it automatically becomes part of that property; it
is the principle of accretion. And the owner of that property is free to
do whatever he pleases with it.
Obviously, there may be other laws, rules and regulations regarding
meteorites around the world, but finding a precise, accurate and
absolutely up-to-date text is a daunting exercise. Anyone is free to
attempt it but, warning, there are mostly rumors, hearsay, and
NEW YORK TIMES
Yet scavengers have disseminated them widely: on Star-bits.com, one of
many sites that sell a variety of meteorites, the 10 fragments with rich
patinas are said to be from Gebel Kamil. The costliest of the 10 — a
two-pound rock, just large enough to cover the fingers of a man's hand —
is priced at $1,600.
Eric Olson of Star-bits defended the marketing as legitimate and beyond
Egyptian law. "I didn't buy them from the Egyptians," he said in an
interview. "I bought them second- and third hand."
The scientists say they have relatively few samples compared with the
booming illicit sales.
"We have at our disposal a very limited number of specimens to study and
exhibit," said Dr. Di Martino. He and other members of the Gebel Kamil
crater discovery team, he added, don't have the money to buy them on the
flourishing black market.
Dr. Harvey of Case Western Reserve said the quandary applied to the
scientific community as a whole. The rampant looting of meteorite sites
and skyrocketing prices for the fragments, he said, "dramatically reduce
who can get samples to do the research."
Let's consider a few facts here:
First, the rule created by the Meteoritical Society: 20% or 20 grams,
whichever is less, of a newly-found meteorite is to be sent to a special
lab for analysis, classification, and publication in the Meteoritical
Bulletin if you want to know what it is you have found. And according to
the latest figures, 40,264 have already been published and 12,342 are
still being studied. That's a whole lot of meteorites!
Also, I was recently told by one meteoriticist that she had "well over a
year's worth of work" on her desk at this time. Yes, meteoriticists have
been flooded with material and it is not rare to have to wait a year (or
more on rare occasions) for a response. Some institutions even had to
stop accepting new material. So I would not say that the number of
samples for research has been reduced; in fact, what I see, and what I
am told by scientists, would indicate a glut of specimens.
NEW YORK TIMES
The black market has exploded in size mainly because of a rush of new
meteorites arriving from North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.
Starting in the late 1980s and 1990s, explorers and nomads discovered
that dark-colored meteorites stood out against flat, featureless areas
covered by sand and small pebbles. And dry desert air helped preserve
the rocks from space.
The pace of collecting began to soar after explorers scrutinizing the
sands of Libya discovered a number of meteorites from the Moon and Mars.
These rare types formed during cosmic smashups, eventually fell to Earth
and fetched high prices.
The collectors association, founded in 2004 in Nevada, now has hundreds
of members around the globe. And while some traders deal in legitimate
exports, many do not.
Since I could be prejudiced when it comes to the IMCA, I will let Geoff
Notkin, co-host of "Meteorite Men" on the Science Channel, author of
"Meteorite Hunting: How to find Treasure from Space" and hundreds of
articles, answer this comment:
"The worldwide community of meteorite dealers and collectors chose
voluntarily to form the IMCA (International Meteorite Collectors
Association), in order to establish high standards of conduct and
ethics; it was not forced upon us. A sweeping statement accusing the
IMCA of illegal activities is not only brazenly inaccurate, it is also a
malicious insult to the organization's many members who have made
remarkable discoveries, and made extraordinarily generous donations to
the science of meteoritics. The vast majority of hardworking academics
in the field recognize the invaluable, and ongoing, contributions made
by those who have a commercial interest in meteorites. Any researcher
with a realistic understanding of the meteorite world embraces the
opportunity to work with hunters and dealers who regularly bring new and
important finds to academia, rather than likening their efforts to the
And again a few facts: Officially our association is only a little over
6 years old, and we have presently 365 members all over the globe. And
all those members have volunteered to live by our Code of Ethics as
condition of membership. Among other things that Code requires of
members that they: "…agree to abide by all Federal, State and Local
Laws and regulations related to the purchase, sale, trade or other
related transactions concerned with the securing or disposing of all
Meteoritical material." Whether any of those laws is beneficial or
harmful to meteorites is an entirely different discussion. Those laws do
exist and must be respected.
NEW YORK TIMES
One buyer expressed remorse after reading about scientific angst over
the thriving market. "I'm very ashamed," the buyer wrote on a blog. "I'm
surely a part of the problem."
Still, many collectors defend the hobby as advantageous for scientists,
saying the market is producing many discoveries and creating many
opportunities. Amateurs often turn to experts for analysis and
authentication and, in return, share the extraterrestrial haul.
"The scientists do not have time to go hunt for their own meteorites, so
somebody has to do it for them," said Anne M. Black, president of the
collectors association. "It's common sense."
Even some scientists applaud the new market.
"I see it as a good thing on balance," said Carl B. Agee, director of
the Institute of Meteoritics at the University of New Mexico. "It's
beneficial mainly because of the huge diversity of meteorites not
previously known about and not accessible."
Thank you, Dr. Agee, and I am delighted we finally met this year during
the Tucson show. I am sorry you missed Dr. Carleton Moore and Dr.
Laurence Garvie from ASU, and Dr. Arthur Ehlmann from Texas Christian
University, who are frequent visitors to the Show; as one of them told
me: "The Tucson Show! It is Christmas all over again!" And thank you for
posting this on two meteorite-forums:
"Since I am quoted in this article, here's my reaction to it. The
reporter seems very confused, in that he lumps together a story about
the Gebel Kamil crater in Egypt and the legal meteorite trade (NWA)
based primarily in Morocco. During the interview with him I spent a fair
amount of time trying to explain to him how beneficial the NWA's have
been for planetary science research. For example, I mentioned how the
number of rare Angrite meteorites has more than doubled due to African
finds – a huge enhancement to our understanding of the early solar
system, and of course I mentioned all the lunars and Martians, and other
rare classes. I told him that I was not terribly well informed about the
Gebel Kamil crater situation, but in my opinion the highest priority
would be to protect the impact structure from degradation as these are
quite rare on Earth. I also told him, that the Gebel Kamil meteorites on
the other hand, are probably not hard to come by, and I'm sure if I
wanted to study one for research, I could get a sample at a reasonable
price or even get one as a donation from a collector, which museums
benefit from frequently. I did get the feeling that he was hoping to
hear something negative from me. As such he ended the interview rather
quickly, but said something like 'oh, the NWA meteorites sounds like an
interesting story, I need to come back to that at a later time'. So of
course I was disappointed to see what mess the final NYT version was."
Yes, collectors and amateurs do routinely help the scientific world.
Just a few examples:
One long-time collector I know has already made plans and signed an
agreement so his entire collection will go to Harvard when he is no
longer of this world. Another one has already donated some rare,
valuable pieces to the Field Museum in Chicago. Personally I have loaned
rare material I was lucky enough to obtain to Dr. Alan Rubin at UCLA,
Dr. Ted Bunch at NAU, and
Dolores Hill and Dr. Ken Domanik at the University of
Arizona in Tucson.
Finally, I called Dr. Laurence Garvie, Curator of the meteorite
collection of Arizona State University and Editor of the Meteoritical
Bulletin. He was clearly appalled by what he had just read in the New
York Times. He promised to write to the Editor, and allowed me to quote
him: "Of course! We absolutely need the private sector. Some of the
most interesting meteorites, Acfer 094, NWA 5000, SAU 493, etc. were
brought in by private hunters. Those are meteorites scientists are
drooling on! And look at those angrites, we had 2, not counting
Antarctica, now we have 15!” He also noted that getting loans is never a
problem, "I could get a Gebel Kamil if I was interested, I would only
have to ask."
NEW YORK TIMES
At stake for science in the rush for meteorites are secrets of the
cosmic bombardment, the development of the solar system and possible
clues to the existence of extraterrestrial life. Last month, scientists
hotly debated whether a new meteorite study produced convincing evidence
of microscopic aliens.
As for the Gebel Kamil crater, Dr. Di Martino said it was futile to try
to save its otherworldly riches from the looters.
"Considering the social, political and geographic situation there," he
said of the remote corner of southwestern Egypt, "it will be completely
useless to protect the area" — unless the authorities put in "a
permanent garrison of marines and/or a minefield."
He and the team of scientific explorers are still eager to revisit the
site, mainly to better date the crater. But they worry that the
political chaos in Egypt may further endanger their find.
The turmoil has already resulted in the delay and possible cancellation
of a new expedition to the Kamil crater and raised doubts about the
security of a collection of the meteorites in Cairo.
With the secret out, the scientific team announced its discovery in July
2010 and detailed its findings in the February issue of Geology.
There, the team hailed the discovery as a potential link to the "iron of
heaven" and estimated the impact site as less than 5,000 years old.
Luigi Folco, the expedition leader and meteorite curator at the
University of Siena, said in an interview that if the age estimate is
correct, "ancient Egyptians living along the Nile could have seen this
major event." The craggy rock from space is said to have exploded with
the blinding flash of an enormous bomb.
Dr. Di Martino said the allure for amateurs was not the advance of
history but the pleasure of owning the latest find.
Since it's a new meteorite, he said, "the collectors like to have a
piece of it."
Yes, Collectors take, but they also give, and give a lot.
So, in conclusion, no, the Meteorite Market is not a black or illegal
market, it is wide-open, highly publicized and thoroughly legal. Of
course, as in any segment of the economy there are a few rotten apples
in the mix, but it is also self-policed by an association that, I hope,
will keep on growing. And it is a market that is not simply accepted by
the scientific community, but is very much welcomed.
Anne M. Black
President, IMCA Inc.
article has been edited by Norbert
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