Twenty-five years after E.T. came home, Steven Spielberg still has the space bug: the filmmaker is among a new wave of nonscientists collecting extraterrestrial rocks.
This coming Sunday in New York City, Heritage Auctions will host the largest meteorite auction in the world, offering some 125 select fragments of Mars, the moon, and asteroids—many of which have been housed in the world’s finest natural history museums. A four-pound moon rock estimated at $340,000 is among the biggest stars of the event, both in terms of monetary value and size (it’s the largest lunar specimen ever to be auctioned). Other meteorites in the auction with a more aesthetic appeal are considered extraterrestrial objets d’art. In recent years, they’ve been hailed by the likes of Damien Hirst.
“The meteorite is very much an emerging collectible,” said Darryl Pitt, meteorite consultant to Heritage Auctions, who contributed a number of pieces from his private collection. “These specimens are incredibly evocative natural forms, but they’ve only recently become appealing to people who are interested in visual arts.”
Pitt, who has a background in the visual arts himself, began cherry-picking unique-looking meteorites from Africa in the late 1980s, which led to his involvement in meteorite commerce. “No one else was interested in them at the time, including museums, because they just wanted the bigger, more monumental pieces,” Pitt said. So he pocketed sculptural meteorites and sold the less visually arresting ones to museums and other private collectors.
One of the more unusually-shaped pieces for sale in Sunday’s auction is the “Gibeon Mask,” an iron meteorite discovered by tribesmen in Namibia in 1992. “So many variables came together to create this singular sculptural form,” said Pitt, adding that the bulk of its formation occurred during thousands of years of exposure to the elements in the Kalahari Desert. “It’s considered the best meteorite of its kind.”
Indeed, most meteorites look like prosaic rocks, but that doesn’t detract from their value. They’re still among the rarest substances on Earth. According to Pitt, every meteorite known to exist would collectively weigh less than the world’s annual output of gold. A majority of these meteorites comes from collisions in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Bits of Mars and the moon are rarer, though they too were launched into the Earth’s orbit by asteroid collisions.
As with most collectibles, a backstory can double a meteorite’s value. To wit: meteorites that were witnessed rocketing toward Earth in the form of fireballs are generally worth more than those discovered after they hit the ground. One of the most famous meteorites is the Peekskill, which punctured Earth’s atmosphere exactly 20 years ago. Weighing in at approximately 27 pounds, the Peekskill was captured on film from as many as 16 different perspectives before it hit a parked car, blowing a large hole through the trunk. Both the car and the Peekskill have since been featured in museum exhibits around the world, though the rock has been picked for Sunday’s auction and valued at $4,000-$6,000.
Others in the auction have no minimal estimate. “There’s a little bit of something for everyone,” said Pitt. “But in the coming years, people are going to look back and say, ‘I can’t believe this material was made available so inexpensively in 2012.’”