Meteorites and moon rock under the hammer

The largest piece of Moon rock ever sold went for US$330,000.
The largest piece of Moon rock ever sold went for US$330,000.

Meteorites from Mars and the biggest piece of the Moon ever offered for sale went on the block on Sunday in New York in what organisers billed as history's largest meteorite auction. It brought in over US$1 million.

More than 125 meteorites were offered in the private sale, from gray pockmarked lumps of iron to highly polished slabs glittering with extraterrestrial gems.

But many of the big-ticket items, estimated to sell for US$50,000 or more, did not find buyers.

The most expensive items on offer were 1.8kg of Moon rock that were once embedded on the dark side of the Moon before an asteroid sent them hurling into space.

They sold for US$330,000 (NZ$405,000) after the auction's end. The rocks went for US$10,000 less than the low-end, pre-sale estimate, organisers said.

The most hotly contested lot was a slice of the Seymchan meteorite, pieces of which were found in Siberia in the 1960s.

The 23cm-tall slice, embedded with olivine crystals, went for US$43,750, about 12 times its estimated sale price.

Items that failed to sell included a large fragment of the Tissint meteorite of Martian origin that fell in Morocco last year, and an iron meteorite resembling a howling face that was found in the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa. It was valued at US$175,000 to US$225,000.

Meteorites are priced for their size, rarity, beauty and provenance. Some items sold for as little as a few hundred dollars.

"We wanted to make certain there's something for everyone. We want to be egalitarian when we're offering outer space," said Darryl Pitt, the meteorite consultant for Heritage Auctions, which conducted the sale.

Buyers are typically willing to pay more for bits of rock or iron known to have originated on the Moon or Mars.

Lunar meteorites are particularly rare, he said, with only about 61.2kg of the rock known to exist on Earth.

"It is the oldest material mankind can touch, the raw ingredients of the planets," Pitt said in describing the appeal of collecting meteorites.

One buyer, who asked not to be named, spent tens of thousands of dollars in several successful bids, including one for a Martian meteorite.

He said he was taking instructions from a copy of the auction catalogue heavily annotated by his meteorite-loving wife.

While one iron meteorite weighed in at nearly 725kg, several other lots featured flecks of rock about the size of a nickel.

A piece of the so-called Peekskill meteorite, which was caught on camera 20 years ago burning through the sky before smacking into a Chevy Malibu in New York, sold for US$16,250.

One buyer paid US$1375 for a piece of stone involved in the only documented fatality caused by a meteorite when it crashed down in 1972.

"It was a cow," auctioneer Ed Beardsley said.

"It was pulverised. It was quick."