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Inside the International Meteorite Market

Posted by Josh Rothman  June 4, 2012 07:30 AM

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Writing at The Naked Scientists, Audrey Tempelsman offers up an overview of the market in meteorites. Apparently, when a meteorite falls to earth, it sets off a "feeding frenzy": According to Ralph Harvey, a geologist at Case Western Reserve University, "There is a market out there that treats these [meteorites] as collectibles and curios, almost as though they were fine art or ancient artifacts," and scientists and museums must negotiate a bewildering network of middlemen to obtain a meteorite.

Tempelsman talks with Eric Twelker, a meteorite reseller based in Alaska:

Twelker purchases meteorites from dealers in Morocco, Russia, Canada and Nigeria, among other countries. When asked how he determines the legality of the specimens he purchases, Twelker paused. “There’s some degree of concern,” he said. “To a large extent -- and I would say this is for dealers and institutions, as well -- the question [of legality] isn’t asked or it isn’t pursued.”.... Making sure that meteorites are acquired legally has proven particularly difficult in North Africa, where it’s often difficult to determine the provenance of specimens for sale. “The skill level that some collectors have to get stones out of Africa rivals that of drug dealers,” says Dr. Harvey. “It’s clear that meteorites are so valuable to these collectors that they’re more than happy to get them and worry about the cost in terms of legality later on."

It's not all cloak-and-dagger, though -- the laws governing meteorite finds are also just plain confusing:

Every country has its own way of determining meteorite ownership -- that is, if such laws exist at all. If a meteorite crash-lands into your rental home in the U.S. or U.K., it’s considered the landlord’s property. If you stumble upon a space rock in Japan, however, finders-keepers applies. In Switzerland, meteorites belong to the government -- but the finder is compensated with a sum suitable to the value of the object. In India, Denmark, and most Australian states, meteorites must be handed over to specific, government-owned museums.

Typical price for a Martian meteorite: about $1,000 per gram. Much more here.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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