Space rocks go on sale in New York

New York, October 26:

As a way of meeting your maker, this one at least had the benefit of originality. On October 15, 1972, a farmer in Trujillo, Venezuela, heard a sonic boom in the sky. The next day he discovered a cow lying dead in the field, its neck and shoulder pulverised. The bemused farmer found a boulderlying nearby, which he took away to use as a doorstep.

It was only many years later that a group of scientists, hearing what had happened, descended on Trujillo and confirmed that the boulder was in fact natural material from outer space that had hurtled through the Earth’s atmosphere and crashed to the ground.

In the process, it bequeathed to the hapless cow a form of posthumous distinction as the only living thing that has been documented to have been killed by a meteorite.

A fragment of that killer extra-terrestrial rock will go on sale in New York on Sunday as part of the first auction devoted to meteorites. The international auction house Bonhams is offering 53 lots, including some of the rarest and most celebrated meteorites in the world, which are expected to go under the gavel for several million dollars.

The items come from America, Europe, Africa and China. Among them are exotic memorabilia, such as a mailbox from Claxton, Geo-rgia, that looks no different from the sort you see at the end of suburban driveways across US except that one end of it has been crumpled like a crushed Coke can.

It was here on December 10, 1984, that a truly express delivery tore off the front flap. Being canny auctioneers, Bonhams is offering a slice of the Claxton meteorite ($800), the mailbox proper (up to $80,000), and the flap itself ($7,500) as separate lots.

The sale amounts to a coming of age of meteorites as collectable objects. Part of the attraction of these nobbly bits of rock is their rarity — the combined mass of all known meteorites is less than the world’s yearly output of gold, and the prices are inflated to match.

At the high end, fragments of what are known as iron meteorites — composed of iron and nickel and making up about seven per cent of all such objects — have attracted a growing number of rich and famous collectors, including film director Steven Spielberg, actor Nicolas Cage and the cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

The attraction here is aesthetic — the voluptuous moulded forms are deemed abstract art in their own right. “You could regard them as natural sculpture from outer space,” said Darryl Pitt, a specialist collector who has advised Bonhams on the auction. He once sold a iron meteorite to a collector of Barbara Hepworth sculptures because it resembled her work.

Two items form the crown jewels of this sale. The first, expected to fetch up to $700,000, is the Brenham meteorite, a large, rounded lump of iron encrusted with extraterrestrial gems found in Kansas two years ago.

It is the largest known example in the world of an ‘oriented’ meteorite — a mass of material that maintains its axis as it is subjected to extraordinary temperatures as it descends to Earth, giving it the smooth profile of a baby’s nose.

Space scientists studied the form of meteorites like it to create the heatshields of Apollo space modules and of cold war nuclear missiles trained on Russia.

The other top item is the most expensive lot at up to $1.3 million: a section from the crown of the world’s most famous meteorite, the Willamette. Found in 1902 in Oregon, and the subject of numerous prolonged legal disputes over its ownership, the bulk of the object is on display at the American Museum of Natural History.

The auction may cause red faces in the sister British institution, the Natural History Museum. Six of the Bonhams lots originated from the London-based museum’s collection having been traded with private collectors in the 1990s. They include a slice of the Ensisheim, a meteorite discovered in 1492.