Playing the Meteorite Market

From Morocco's mountains to Arizona's deserts, collectors, scientists and profit-minded middlemen are searching for The Rock.

By Jonathon Keats|Friday, May 30, 2014
RELATED TAGS: METEORS & ASTEROIDS
MeteoriteGarvie03
MeteoriteGarvie03
Ernie Mastroianni

Laurence Garvie can’t stop thinking about the rock that’s still out there, the one he doesn’t have, the specimen that might explain how the solar system formed or even the origin of life on Earth. That’s why, on a windy February morning in Phoenix, he escorts two men into Arizona State University’s meteorite room, a solid concrete vault lined with metal cabinets containing the collection Garvie manages: thousands of stones from the moon, Mars and the asteroid belt.

The men bear little resemblance to Garvie, a meteoriticist with a balding pate and too many pens in his pocket. In contrast, Ruben Garcia and Bob Cucchiara are fast-talking meteorite dealers dressed in blue jeans and sweatshirts. They’ve just driven 100 miles from Tucson, where they’ve been scouring the annual Gem, Mineral and Fossil Showcase for meteorites to trade with Garvie. As Cucchiara silently looks over the room, Garcia starts pulling bits of rusty metal out of his pack.

The metal fragments are a special request. “I called Laurence from the show and asked him what he wanted,” Garcia tells me as he piles them onto a digital scale. Garvie had given him names of several recent finds not yet in the ASU collection. Most of them were discovered in the deserts of northwest Africa, picked up from the sands by local tribesmen and exported to the United States by Moroccan middlemen. Garcia’s rusty specimens are no exception. They come from a meteorite called Agoudal, named after the town in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains where the fragments were recently uncovered, an estimated 40,000 years after impact. Studying the composition of nickel-iron meteorites like Agoudal is the closest scientists can come to sampling Earth’s metal core. 

The deal Garcia and Cucchiara have with meteoriticist Garvie is a barter: rusty chunks of Agoudal in exchange for a few precious brown nodules from the Bondoc meteorite, an ancient 2,000-pound behemoth unearthed in the Philippines and hauled back to Arizona in the ’60s. ASU owns nearly all of Bondoc, far more than researchers will ever need. Since Bondoc is uncommon in private collections, it’s become a sort of asteroidal currency for Garvie, and also for Garcia and Cucchiara. They’ll head back to the Tucson show, where they’ll recover their outlay for the Agoudal they brought by completing a three-way exchange: A collector will get a rare Bondoc trophy piece. Garvie will acquire valuable Agoudal research material. And some Berbers in the Atlas Mountains will continue earning their living by meteorite hunting, discovering space rocks that would otherwise never be found.

Exchanges like this happen all the time at universities around the world. Unlike paleontologists and archaeologists, who condemn amateur hunters and merchants for destroying excavation sites, many meteoriticists see the commercial traffic in meteorites as a boon — even a necessity — to science. To find a meteorite in the field takes thousands of hours as well as considerable expertise. Few scientists have the time or funding for such expeditions.

“We are just benefiting from this tremendously as scientists,” says Carl Agee, director of the Institute of Meteoritics at the University of New Mexico. “The rare scientifically valuable specimens that have been found in the past few years have been mind-boggling.”

While a handful of countries, such as Australia, have banned or severely restricted meteorite exports — and the occasional illicit rock is “found” somewhere other than where it was actually discovered to skirt local law — the vast majority of specimens on the market are legally sourced, exported and sold or traded. And increasingly, those rocks are coming from the arid mountains and deserts of northwest Africa.

Treasures in the Sand

Focused around Morocco, northwest Africa is a nebulous geographic designation covering a wide swath of desert. The vagueness reflects an ambiguity about where exactly most northwest African meteorites are found. Except in rare cases like Agoudal, where the discovery site is publicly documented, they’re identified by numbers such as NWA 869. The numbers are assigned by the Meteoritical Bulletin after the rocks have undergone mineralogical analysis and classification by an institution such as ASU.

While meteorites fall in equal abundance everywhere on Earth, northwest Africa provides especially rich hunting grounds. The dark alien rocks stand out against pale desert sands, and the Sahara’s dry climate preserves them for thousands of years. Yet nomads traveling through the empty desert never thought of collecting them — until recently. 

In 1997, an amateur French digger and dealer named Luc Labenne and his family were in Mauritania, looking to buy excavated prehistoric tools. He heard about meteorites being found in neighboring Algeria and thought it would be worth looking around Mauritania as well. On their fourth trip from France to the region, they found a dark-brown, 55-pound, magnetic rock. The National Museum of Natural History in Paris confirmed that it came from space. Within a month, they’d collected another 210 of the stones. 

In November of the same year, an American meteorite dealer named Edwin Thompson got on a plane bound for Mauritania with $28,000 in cash. A contact he’d made in Morocco earlier, Simon Hmani, had heard of a fireball that nomads tracked to the El Hammami Mountains. There, Hmani negotiated with nomads for a sample and sent it to Thompson. “I thought it was cement,” Hmani recalls. Thompson knew better, and he arranged to buy more than 300 pounds of it. 

Hunters and Gatherers 

Like the stones found by the Labennes, the meteorite discovered in the El Hammami range was of only minor scientific interest: a common type from the asteroid belt known as an ordinary chondrite, already well represented in most museum collections. The real impact was on the market. As the Labennes alerted scientists to how much material could be culled from the desert, Thompson’s cash deal made a strong impression on the nomads. And that was all the motivation they needed. “If you find a meteorite, you make a year’s salary,” Thompson says. He taught the nomads what to look for, and word swiftly spread. By 1998, many English-speaking Moroccans were full-time middlemen. Meteorites were being shipped from Morocco to the Tucson gem show in 55-gallon drums to be picked through by traders like Garcia and Cucchiara.

In the 16 years that have followed, the volume has only grown. In 1999, 45 northwest African meteorites were classified. Now it’s about 400 per year, but the number doesn’t fully capture the value of what’s coming out of the desert. More extraordinary specimens are being found now than at any other time in history. “The nomads are getting better at looking for meteorites,” observes Hmani. They’ve gotten especially good at identifying stones from the moon and Mars. These rarest of finds seldom look like conventional meteorites and often aren’t attracted to a magnet. 

Garvie says he can see the nomads’ increasing prowess by what arrives in his lab. Other meteoriticists strongly agree. “The meteorite hunters are getting very well educated in practical terms,” says Agee. “If you look at the Martian meteorites that have been discovered, 131 have been classified, and only 27 of them have come from Antarctica,” where all hunting is done by government expeditions, “while the lion’s share is coming from the desert.”

Finders are loath to reveal their sources, mostly because they want to keep their best fields to themselves. (Large meteoroids often break up in midair, resulting in “strewn fields” where many small meteorites can be found.) But information about a meteorite’s extraterrestrial origin is essential to establishing its value on the market. To get that crucial laboratory classification, the finders or dealers need to send a sample to qualified scientists such as Garvie or Agee, who retain a “type
specimen” — customarily 20 grams (about three-quarters of an ounce) or
20 percent of the total weight, whichever is less — as material for research. 

But when scientists agree to classify a specimen, some of them bargain for larger shares or specific cuts, looking for material they can later trade for other meteorites, as Garvie has often done in trades with Garcia and Cucchiara.

“I won’t [classify] it for 20 grams,” says Garvie. “We negotiate right up front on which pieces I would like, and most dealers are fine with it.” On his desk at ASU are some polished slices of NWA 6991, a speckled, black stone known as a carbonaceous chondrite: the most primitive type of meteorite containing some of the first material from the solar system’s youth. “It’s one of the freshest I’ve ever seen,” he says. “I classified it for the dealer Michael Farmer, and he just says, ‘Take whatever you want.’ ” 

American Souk

In Tucson, several large men kneel over a row of tattered cardboard boxes under the winter sun. One pulls out a smooth, brown rock, still dusty with desert sand, and spits on it. Running his finger through the saliva, he reaches for the magnifying loupe hanging around his neck, and he squints at the wet spot, slowly turning the stone in the daylight. He grunts and tosses it back. A Moroccan in a traditional turban leans down to offer him the whole crate at a special bargain price. Brushing sand off his flannel shirt and shaking his head, the man walks toward the boxes of another eager Moroccan dealer.

It’s a typical Saturday morning at the Tucson gem show. For two weeks every February, the expo is spread across the city, occupying the convention center, several motels and even roadside tents, where you can buy everything from dinosaurs to diamonds in the raw. It’s the closest thing in the United States to a Moroccan souk, or bazaar. 

Although meteorites are also traded at annual shows in Denver and Ensisheim in France, and countless items are sold on eBay, this is the world’s biggest marketplace of its kind. Most of the meteorite traders are doing business at the Hotel Tucson City Center, a sprawling complex that rents out all its rooms as makeshift shops. Dealers drape banners over the railings. Luc Labenne and Edwin Thompson have transformed their rooms into full-fledged rock shops with large glass display cases. Many dealers simply spread their merchandise across king-size beds. Some of the Moroccans have so many crates that the beds needed to be stashed away and their piles of merchandise — an unsorted mix of meteorites and ordinary desert rocks — spill out onto the sidewalks outside the motel-style units.

“A meteorite might pass through five or six hands before it reaches a university,” dealer Garcia explains. With the exception of the nomads and their camels, the whole supply chain — including scientists — comes jostling through those Tucson motels.

The activity in Tucson is increasing with each passing season. If the first phase of the meteorite boom was characterized by Europeans and Americans traveling to Africa — hunting like Labenne or trading like Thompson — the second phase increasingly involves Africans pushing out into European and American markets.

But the marketplace has also become more difficult, thanks in part to general unrest and a changing political landscape in the broader region. Labenne stopped visiting after a close friend was thrown into a Sudanese prison. The incident was unrelated to the meteorite trade, but still unsettling for Labenne. Farmer, one of Garvie’s trading partners and one of the few American dealers who still ventures deep into the field on a regular basis, was recently robbed in Kenya by thieves wielding machetes. On another recent trip, he and a partner were locked in an Omani jail cell for two months after local police illicitly confiscated lunar meteorites that Farmer says were worth close to $200,000. 

And yet the incentives, both financial and scientific, are enough to keep hunters like Farmer and researchers like Garvie invested in the meteorite market, and to ensure plenty of business opportunities for dealers like Garcia and Cucchiara. “We need the scientists, and the scientists need us,” Farmer asserts. “Without us, 90 percent of the meteorites would never be seen.” 

The evidence is inside Laurence Garvie’s concrete vault. If not for the rough-and-tumble meteorite business, NWA 6991 would remain out in the desert, and Agoudal would slowly rust away.

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