Monetizing Junk from Outer Space: Art Collectors Bid on Rare MeteoritesPosted: March 30, 2016
Bruce Dormancy writes: Holiday shopping for items from the Moon, Mars and the wilds of outer space is still possible for those open to meteoritic stocking stuffers. Such truly ancient pieces of space rock — think older than Earth itself — are increasingly sought after by hundreds of high-end collectors looking for natural pieces of sculpture.
Although a plethora of commercial startups are pining for metal riches from asteroids in the Main Asteroid Belt and beyond, meteorite collectors here on terra firma now routinely buy and sell these off-world treasures at auction.
Christie’s South Kensington Auction House in London is planning their first catalog sale of meteorites next April. Prices typically range from around $500 to over $100,000, depending on the size, type of meteorites, condition and provenance, James Hyslop, the Head of Science & Books at Christie’s South Kensington, told me.
However, some meteorites can sell for much higher.
The Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing paid a cool $1 million for two small Mars meteorites. Indeed, Hyslop says lunar and Martian meteorites are the most sought after, since they are also the most rare; representing less than one percent of the estimated 62,000 catalogued meteorites. The rest all originate from asteroidal or cometary bodies in deep space.
Darryl Pitt, Curator of the Macovich Collection of Meteorites in New York — one of the world’s largest private collections, told me that any given meteorite’s sales value is also influenced by other factors. They include whether the piece is whole or fractured; its locality at the time of discovery; its esthetics; color; crystalline structure and translucency.
And often, the more bizarre their shapes, the better collectors like it. Hyslop notes that meteorites with naturally-occurring holes are much rarer and more highly-prized.
Alan Rubin, a UCLA research geochemist, told me that such bizarre shapes result from both fragmentation while traveling through Earth’s atmosphere and often years of terrestrial weathering after hitting the ground.
But the hot quick trip through our atmosphere is nothing to compared to their circuitous orbital routes to Earth itself.
For meteorites that originated on the Moon or Mars, their journeys here can take up to millions of years. Most lunar meteorites either reach the Earth in a few days or achieve quasi-geocentric orbits that bring them to Earth in less than a million years,” said Rubin.
Mars meteorites typically take much longer.
Rubin says we know this as a result of cosmic ray dating on the meteorites themselves.
He says that when objects in interplanetary space are less than a few meters in size, they are penetrated by cosmic rays which transmute some elements into measurable radioactive isotopes.
The length of this cosmic-ray exposure (CRE) can readily be calculated and essentially provide geochemists like Rubin with the time the meteorite spent in interplanetary space. Rubin says Martian meteorites typically have CRE ages of between 700,000 to 20 million years.
As for what types of meteorites the art and auction crowd finds most interesting?
Iron meteorites are of most interest to the art crowd, says Pitt. But he says of the iron meteorites that are esthetically pleasing, only “an exceedingly small number” can be considered “abstract sculpture from outer space.” Even so, Pitt says some collectors…(read more)