Psssst! Want to buy a piece of that meteor that exploded over Russia the other day? Hundreds of vendors will be happy to hear from you. Some of them might even be selling real meteorites.
Avito.ru, the Russian equivalent of Craigslist, has been flooded with ads offering meteorites from Chelyabinsk, site of the dramatic Feb. 15 explosion that injured more than 1,000 people. Listings are also starting to turn up on EBay (EBAY). Prices range from less than $20, for fragments weighing about 100 grams (a little over 3 ounces), to more than $3,300 for a meteorite described as “the size of an egg.”
Some samples of the deals on offer:
• An eBay ad offers “samples from the scene of a Chelyabinsk meteorite” for $200. The vendor admits: “We aren’t sure for 100% that it is a meteorite.”
• A vendor on Avito.ru is proposing a “private tour of the crash site and sightseeing excursion of the destruction” for $167, including airport pickup.
• A second vendor on Avito.ru is asking about $3,300 for a meteorite “found near the zinc factory.”
That sounds like a lot. But, says Rob Elliott, a meteorite dealer near Edinburgh, “Any serious collector is going to want a piece.” (Yes, there are serious meteorite collectors and dealers, as well as national and international associations of meteorite enthusiasts.)
The RIA-Novosti news agency quoted Russian scientists as saying the Chelyabinsk meteor was made of “ordinary chondrites,” with iron content of about 10 percent. “This sounds like a very common type of meteorite,” Elliott says, “but it has the added attraction of the fireball and being seen by so many people and doing so much damage.”
What if you’re not a serious collector but still want your own piece of the biggest object to enter Earth’s atmosphere in more than a century? What should you expect to pay?
Meteorites are subject to the laws of supply and demand that govern earthly objects, says Mark Ford, a longtime collector who is chairman of the British and Irish Meteorite Society. “Some meteorite falls are just a few kilograms, and they tend to be more valuable.” Ford says he’s heard of some particularly rare specimens fetching as much as $1,000 per gram.
However, the Chelyabinsk meteor was enormous—NASA estimated its weight at between 7,000 and 10,000 tons—which means lots of meteorites probably fell, and prices are likely to be lower. That’s the good news for potential buyers. The bad news, Ford says, is that “if you buy now, you’ll pay too much.” Prices typically plummet after the initial excitement of a major meteorite fall, he says.
An even bigger risk is that what you buy won’t be a meteorite at all. Russian authorities have issued a stern warning to online vendors, saying that police “will be monitoring advertising around the clock” and that anyone selling phony meteorites “will be immediately prosecuted.”
Exactly how Russian police are going to authenticate meteorites was not explained. In the meantime, Scottish dealer Elliott says he has looked at a number of online ads for purported Chelyabinsk meteorites, “and so far I haven’t seen any meteorites. All I’ve seen is a lot of old rocks.”
One particularly imaginative vendor is offering to sell bags of Chelyabinsk topsoil to people who want to search for meteorites in the comfort of their own homes. Buying these is probably not a good idea, as the Chelyabinsk region is home to a major plutonium-processing facility that in the 1950s suffered one of the worst nuclear accidents in history.
Ford advises would-be buyers to steer clear of online ads with blurry photographs and to look for rocks with a jet-black outer coating, caused by superheating as the meteorite passes through the atmosphere at supersonic speed. But, he adds, “There are a lot of black rocks around.” Even chunks of tarmac can easily be mistaken for meteorites.
The best bet, Ford says, is to buy from a dealer who is a member of the International Meteorite Collectors Association, a self-policing group of dealers. Ordinarily, after a major meteorite fall, “the dealers are on the next plane,” he says. “But this being Russia, it’s a bit more difficult. They have to get visas, and there are some security issues because Chelyabinsk is a nuclear city.”