How much for a piece of this rock? Meteorites: Small chunks of the Red Planet turn collectors green with envy.

November 20, 1996|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

When NASA scientists announced this summer that they had found possible signs of primitive life in a Martian meteorite, people again faced a question that has haunted mankind since the dawn of consciousness: What's in it for me?

Soon enough a response came from a meteorite dealer and a New York auction house: money. But that was only part of the solution.

Today we stand at the threshold of a great discovery. Meteorite collectors await word from Guernsey's auction house in Manhattan, hopeful of unlocking a mystery that for millenniums has sparked man's mercantile imagination: How much?

How much for three chunks of Mars that together weigh a little more than a pound? A million bucks? Two million? Three? On the heels of the NASA announcement and similar findings announced later by British researchers, the Red Planet has turned the color of money. Only a few pounds of Martian rocks are available to the private collectors of the world; how much for a big, fat share?

The answer comes tonight from Guernsey's, which reminds us that in America no frontier of human experience or imagination is so cosmic it cannot be packaged, hyped and sold.

In a high-ceilinged room on Park Avenue this evening, spotlights will illuminate a glass case provided by Cartier's jewelers. Inside, on a bed of black velvet, three hunks of Martian meteorite -- one sand-colored, one blackish-green with red specks, one slate gray -- that by all accounts are splendid samples for their size and condition.

How much wondered Guernsey's president, Arlan Ettinger.

"We chose to try and come up with some hopefully intelligent guess, but that's all it is," says Ettinger. His estimate for the three rocks: $1.5 to $2 million.

Within a limited universe of meteorite collectors, that's "way overpriced, a screaming rip-off," says Blaine Reed, a meteorite dealer in Colorado. "But in the real world it's hard to say. ... The meteorite collecting world is not the only market for Mars rocks."

Carl Francis, curator of the Harvard Mineralogical Museum, calls the sale "a stunt. ... I see this as an exercise to ratchet up the price of meteorites by appealing to a larger but less-informed group."

Interest in the sale clearly has transcended the world of meteorite collectors, thanks to advertisements in the New York Times and elsewhere, and to this moment in scientific history. Ettinger won't even guess about how many people might bid. Guernsey's is setting up more than 200 chairs at the red-brick 7th Regiment Armory. The phone lines will be open when the bidding begins at 7.

"I know a lot of people that want them, but not at an unrealistic, above-market price," says David Herskowitz, curator of natural history at Phillips Auctioneers in Manhattan. As far as anyone knows, Phillips is the only place where Martian meteorites have been auctioned before.

Four were sold there in December and June. The highest price was paid in December for a rock that weighed 1.7 grams -- less than a 10th of an ounce. It went for $2,645, or $1,556 per gram, including the auctioneer's 15 percent commission. A gram of this rock is roughly the size of a rice grain.

And that was for a bit of Zagami, also known as Shergottite, the most plentiful of the Martian meteorite types. The rocks being sold by Guernsey's include a potato-shaped piece of Zagami weighing nearly a pound, and smaller samples of rarer and more expensive varieties: Nakhlite and, scarcer still, Chassigny.

The prices of meteorites, says Darryl Pitt, curator of a large New York collection, "have shot up astronomically. The Martian thing has pulled up the whole thing."

The Martian thing -- announcements in August and late October couched in cautious scientific terms, but still electrifying. Using extraordinarily sensitive instruments, American and British scientists examining two Martian meteorites found in Antarctica saw what appeared to be traces of organic compounds. Possible evidence of life on another planet.

The findings have since been challenged by other scientists, among them Harry Y. McSween Jr. of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. McSween says he and other researchers "would love for this idea to be true," but for now he considers the evidence "very tenuous and circumstantial ... we're going to test it as rigorously and as harshly as anything else."

Guernsey's, a small house compared to Sotheby's and Christie's, has sold a few oddball items in about 20 years in business. It sold the ocean liner SS United States, for example. It sold a huge lot of hand-carved wooden carousel figures. In 1988 it sold 25 Cuban cigars for $10,000 to Al Goldstein, the publisher of Screw magazine -- $400 smackers a smoke. That got lots of press.

But it never sold Martian meteorites. Ettinger was determined to find some. He made phone calls and in September found a source. He won't name the man selling the rocks, but several dealers say it's a meteorite dealer in Connecticut.

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