IMCA Insights – June 2006
Welcome to the June issue of IMCA Insights. The March Fraudbusters issue reviewed scams that had been published to our members in order to "prevent any further circulation of mislabeled meteorites, or fake specimens". Were you aware that IMCA also offers assistance to non-member sellers and finders of suspect meteorites* for similar reasons? Primarily, we do not wish new collectors (the ones most likely to purchase a 'wrong' from an inexperienced seller) to loose trust in the hobby. This issue will focus on successes and rejections respecting attempts to educate individuals. And in the process provide an answer to the newbie question, “Are suspect meteorites a possible good deal?”
The program to assist non members with suspect meteorites began in 2003 after I was selected by the Board of Directors to make initial contact with eBay sellers in behalf of IMCA. How has that worked out? About a fourth of the sellers contacted have responded appreciatively to the offer of assistance and for that reason alone one could declare the program to be a success. Many honest but inexperienced sellers have been helped and many suspect meteorites have been removed from circulation. That said, not everyone contacted responds but the ones that do, appreciative or not, seem to fall into certain categories.
Copy and Paste
No seller wants potential bidders to realize that he has no idea about what is being sold. Far too often detailed info is copied from a web site or another auction and pasted to a suspect meteorite auction description. Surprisingly many new sellers do not realize this is a dishonest act. They are simply trying to match a description to their perception. I asked the seller of the stone pictured below how he had determined the specific percentages of the metals that he listed. He revealed he had found a meteorite web page he felt looked similar and had copied its description. This seller was then informed how to have the item accurately tested. He cancelled the auction, submitted a sample to NEMS and thanked IMCA for the help. The test revealed the stone to be a ‘wrong’.
Fe=90% Ni=10% (Not really)
You Can’t Handle the Truth
With headlines of high dollar meteorites and new finds, it is not surprising that persons unfamiliar with meteorites view their suspect meteorites with hopefulness normally reserved for a winning lottery ticket. The last thing some sellers want is the cold water of truth to awaken them from the cherished dream of riches. Thus the challenge is to allow these sellers to discover the truth themselves. I start this process by stating the item is ‘suspect’ but not declaring it to be a ‘wrong’. Next, I outline options and benefits. “A classified meteorite brings higher bids than a suspect meteorite. And what if the item is a rare meteorite; would it not be worth the extra time to have it tested?” Unless the seller has already had the item tested, money motivates the honest seller to stop the auction and put a sample in the mail. Sellers who don’t stop an auction probably know more than they reveal in the description. But what about those who claim it has been ‘tested’?
Why do you believe this to be a meteorite?
Practically everyone I contact is asked the question above. Many look at photos or conduct ‘tests’. A typical response is, “it looks the same as the one that I saw on the web.” Some responses are just plain strange. One lady wrote, “(my husband) put gasoline on a small piece and set it on fire, it did not hold heat at all!!!” An even stranger response, “it makes you sick to hold it… and you can't wash it away with soap … your tongue and insides o your mouth tastes like, well like ....like a rusty nail that has sulphur in it.” (Uggg! NO samples, please!) Others are confident due to ‘verification’ by an ‘authority’, “THIS SPECIMEN WAS EXAMINED BY A WELL KNOWN PROFFESOR IN HIS ART, WHO CLAIMED THAT IF THIS WAS NOT ALLIEN, THEN IT WOULD BE IN THE REGION OF 130 MILLION YEARS OLD”. One of my favorites was the lady who thought she was taking no chances with authenticity, she wrote: “I had my daughter take it to school to make sure it was a meteorite before I listed it.” (Elementary identification, Watson!) Always send your samples to persons experienced in meteorite identification.
Photo identification of ‘rites’ and ‘wrongs’ is limited. On occasion a promising item such as the one below is auctioned. The seller stated “The meteorite in question was seen falling and found in a field in central South Carolina”. The story along with the fresh looking specimen photo seemed hopeful but testing later revealed the item to be slag.
South Carolina slag
The Reality Check Bounces
Despite warnings and helpful advice some can’t resist the opportunity to profit from suspect meteorites. Currently on eBay there are over a dozen Chinese mineral dealers who list hematite, magnetite and assorted stones as “meteorites”. On the other end of the spectrum, IMCA Members abide by a Code of Ethics that prohibits the selling of suspect meteorites. Unclassified specimens must first be verified. Surprisingly, two members decided that their suspect auctions were more valuable than their memberships.
One of the first persons to separate himself from IMCA did so in an amazing way. Members were shocked when he listed the “Odessa Gold Meteorite” for 2.5 million dollars. The listing was salted with the names of well known institutions and the outrageous claim that the Smithsonian would soon award the specimen a new classification. There were, of course, no bidders, but members were alerted to take a closer look this seller’s auctions.
Odessa Gold ‘Meteorite’
Another member obtained 500 lbs of suspect material from a Nevada ‘treasurer hunter’. (The ‘treasure hunter’ actually had a sample tested but refused to accept UCLA’s non-meteoritic test result.) The member listed a 57 lb. chunk as an “Exquisite Newly Found Nevada Iron METEORITE” claiming it was “from a large fragmented NICKEL-IRON ASTEROID”. No proof or cross section photo was provided. Despite countless emails to the contrary, the seller insisted that the material was verified by unnamed ‘experts’ and refused to pull the auction. The photo (below) shows a cross section of the purchased “iron meteorite”. (IMCA adjusted its member screening process.)
Nevada Iron ‘Meteorite’
Suspect meteorites – a possible good deal?
EBay is one of the safest places to buy and sell meteorites but suspect meteorite auctions are usually not good deals. What are the chances of winning a genuine meteorite from a suspect meteorite auction? It is probably easier to actually find a meteorite. How hard is that? Carleton B. Moore the director of Arizona State University's Center for Meteorite Studies gets on average 700 specimens (suspect meteorites) sent in for free test each year. Most of these are iron ore. "We're lucky if it's one (real meteorite) out of 1,000 (wrongs)" he said. Likewise, In the past six years I have only seen two suspect meteorite auctions on eBay that were actually genuine meteorites. So what are your chances? If persons knowledgeable enough to send off samples for testing are right only 1 in 1000 times, how right are persons who are less responsible and are selling their specimen 'as-is' on eBay?
EBay suggests, "Use common sense. If something seems too good to be true, it often is. Make sure that you are comfortable with the transaction before you bid. Confirm authenticity of the item." How? Look for the IMCA logo that ensures authenticity.
*suspect meteorites – specimens that have not been properly verified as authentic.