Published January 13, 2015
Two of the world's most famous meteorites failed to attract buyers at an auction on Sunday, while an ordinary metal mailbox zapped by a falling space rock in 1984 was sold for the unearthly price of nearly $83,000.
A 30-pound chunk of the Willamette Meteorite, which was found in Oregon in 1902 and has been steeped in ownership controversies for more than a century, was offered by Bonhams auction house at an estimated value of $1.3 million, but was withdrawn from sale after bidding ended at $300,000.
Similarly, the 1,410-pound Brenham Main Mass, dug out of a central Kansas farm field in 2005, was withdrawn by Bonhams CEO and auctioneer Malcolm Barber after it drew a top bid of only $200,000 — well short of the pre-sale estimate of $630,000 to $700,000.
In both cases the sellers, who were present, said they weren't worried because potential purchasers were known to be interested in the extraterrestrial rocks even though they may not have joined the bidding.
"I'm disappointed, but it was not through any lack of effort," said Philip Mani, a San Antonio lawyer and geologist who is one of three owners of the Brenham meteorite, along with Steve Arnold, who found it, and Allen Binford, who owns the wheatfield near Greensburg, Kan., where it was discovered.
"We are in the process of putting together a plan, and we have a number of inquiries from people expressing interest."
The entire 15.5-ton Willamette Meteorite has been owned by the American Museum of Natural History since 1908, with pieces loaned or given to other collectors from time to time.
The small piece was offered at auction by Darryl Pitt, curator of the Macovich Collection, the world's largest collection of space rocks, who traded the museum a Martian rock for the Willamette chip in 1998.
Pitt said the fact that it went unsold was "not really a surprise," and said he also expected a lot of interest from prospective buyers.
Having sold several other rocks, including a Siberian meteorite — a product of history's largest known meteor shower — for the day's top price of $122,750, he called the auction "not a bad day. It shows there is a lot of interest in meteorites."
The couple who bought the Siberian rock, which some observers have likened to an erotic painting by Georgia O'Keeffe, declined to identify themselves.
Scientists believe the huge Willamette meteorite, the largest ever found in North America, crashed thousands of years ago in what is now Canada and was pushed southward by glaciers before it was discovered in an area occupied by Oregon's Clackamas Indians.
The Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, which includes the Clackamas, has objected to the auction of the 30-pound fragment. The tribe believes the meteorite is a sacred object that was sent to earth by the Sky People; demands for its return to the group have been refused.
"I don't know what to say about their claim," Pitt said after the auction.
Among the more than 50 meteorites, moon rocks and other items that Bonhams auctioned off for a total of $750,000, a surprise star was a mailbox that had sat outside the trailer park home of Carutha Barnard in Claxton, Ga., until it was blasted one night in 1984 by a three-pound rock from outer space.
In spirited bidding, the mailbox — somewhat the worse for the experience but with its red metal flag still bravely in the "up" position — went to an unidentified bidder for $82,750 including the buyer's premium of 20 percent.
A tiny piece of the rock itself, less than an ounce, went for $7,700.
The Valera Meteorite, noteworthy as the only space rock known to have caused a fatality on earth, was sold for $1,554.
Its victim in 1972 was a cow in Venezuela.