IMCA Insights – April 2011
Rebuttal to "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

Copyright: Keith Vasquez

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 clear".

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 origin.
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 Database:

MetBull Entry for Gebel Kamil

Popular or not, the meteorites were taboo. In Egypt and elsewhere, scientists say, it is illegal without a permit to remove meteorites from a country.

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 article 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 unverifiable reports.

Yet scavengers have disseminated them widely: on, 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.

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 drug trade."

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.

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."

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.

This article has been edited by Norbert Classen

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