The art world's interest in meteorites has skyrocketed, with collectors and curators buying up the outer-space rocks for display in museums, galleries or on a cocktail table at home.
Next week, meteorite hunters will get a chance to bid for some of the world's most coveted extraterrestrial rocks when they go on sale at Bonhams' New York natural history auction.
Among the highlights are a small slice of the 15.5-ton Willamette, the crown jewel of meteorites on display at the American Museum of Natural History, and a 355-pound (160-kilogram) iron meteorite from Campo Del Cielo, "Valley of the Sky," Argentina.
These rare space sculptures have captured the imagination of the public over the last decade, not only for their scientific richness but for their natural beauty.
"Beyond matters of the soul, the inspiration for most art is in nature," said Darryl Pitt, primary owner and curator of the Macovich Collection, considered the finest aesthetic meteorites in the world. "For me, aesthetic meteorites are the closest approximate to being able to behold that which is in the heavens."
Among the meteorites at Tuesday's auction — all from the Macovich Collection — the small beveled slice of Willamette is expected to sell for $8,000 to $10,000. The Willamette is North America's largest meteorite, deposited by the last ice age and discovered in Oregon in 1902.
The large "Valley of the Sky" iron meteorite, measuring 30 by 15 by 14.5 inches (76 by 38 by 36.8 centimeters), looks nearly the same as it did when it burned through Earth's atmosphere thousands of years ago. Estimated at $40,000 to $50,000, its surface "thumbprints" are evidence that it "tumbled, spun and corkscrewed in the minutes prior to impact," Bonhams said.
The auction house also is offering a lunar specimen of the only off-white fallen chunk of the moon available to the public. Its presale estimate is $5,000 to $6,000. "When a piece of the moon falls here on its own, clients are always interested in acquiring it," said Claudia Florian, a gemologist and curator at Bonhams.
NASA possesses many pieces of lunar rock brought back from missions, but they are not available for private purchase.
The auction also contains a small meteorite piece with naturally occurring gemstones of olivine crystals and peridot recovered in Chile, estimated at $2,800 to $3,200.
From meteoroid to meteorite
Meteoroids are pieces of rock, dust or debris traveling through outer space. Meteors are streaks of light that suddenly appear in the sky when a meteoroid from outer space evaporates in the earth's atmosphere. A meteorite is a meteoroid that reaches the ground.
About 30,000 distinct meteorites are known to exist in earthly collections. Out of those, only 7 percent are iron meteorites, and less than 1 percent are considered aesthetic.
The artistic meteorite market has skyrocketed over the last decade, as demand has increased and the availability of the rocks has decreased.
Recent auctions of fossils, dinosaur eggs and meteorites held by Bonhams in Los Angeles drew huge crowds and commanded competitive bids, said Florian.
"E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial" film director Steven Spielberg and Sheik Saud bin Mohammed al-Thani of Qatar are among the avid collectors of space sculptures, said Pitt.
But while meteorites have penetrated the art market, Pitt said the public should not lose track of the scientific contribution meteorites play in the understanding of the solar system and the origin of life itself.
"It is not only a beautiful object, but it transcends that which we know and are familiar," said Pitt. "It is otherworldly, and to me that is something romantic and fantastic."