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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 18 January 2019

Moon rocks to meteorites: investing in space matter

How our fascination with space is creating the ultimate luxury purchase

A slice of the Imilac meteorite auctioned by Christie's. Courtesy of: Christie's
A slice of the Imilac meteorite auctioned by Christie's. Courtesy of: Christie's

Some of the most coveted objects in the world come from rocks. Diamonds, rubies, emeralds – they are all carved from the Earth’s crust before being turned into treasures. But the most prized rocks of all aren’t actually from this planet.

While they may be duller in appearance, the appeal of owning a meteorite comes from a different place – a place of human fascination and curiosity, and the idea of welcoming a piece of another world into your own. With some fetching US$1,000 (Dh3,672) per gram, these stones are more expensive than platinum and gold. And this market, which has traditionally been the territory of a small group of niche collectors, is now being infiltrated by the wider art world.

On November 29, Sotheby’s auctioned off the only known pieces of the Moon in private hands. On the surface, the three pea-sized rocks may not look like much, but they made history. The samples had been through the auction house once before, in 1993, when they fetched more than 10 times their original estimate, to sell for $442,500. When they came back into the hands of the Sotheby’s auctioneers last month, they sold for $855,000.

The sample of the moon set to be auctioned off by Sotheby's later this week. Courtesy of: Sotheby's
The sample of the moon set to be auctioned off by Sotheby's later this week. Courtesy of: Sotherby's

In September 1970, the unmanned Luna 16 landed on the Moon, drilled a 35-centimetre-deep hole into its surface, and extracted a core sample before returning the soil safely back to Earth. More than 70 elements were traceable in the sample, estimated to be 3.4 billion years old. It was later presented as a gift to Nina Ivanovna Koroleva, the widow of the chief designer and director of the Soviet Space programme, Sergei Korolev, who never got to see it materialise. No other sample has ever been gifted to an individual by a nation.

While Sotheby’s Moon stones are exceedingly rare, meteorites are becoming quite a big business for auction houses. In October, a 5.4-kilogram lunar meteorite, thought to be one of the largest yet discovered, sold for a staggering $612,000 at a Boston auction house, surpassing its initial estimation of $500,000. At the time, RR Auction offered some insight into how it valued the meteorite, known as Buagaba. “A unique or unpaired meteorite is more desirable to collectors and perhaps more valuable to science, especially in those rare instances in which the single find is a very large stone,” a representative explained. “Such is the case with Buagaba; it has no known pairings, and is the only example of this meteorite. Considering that the average size of a lunar meteorite find is a few hundred grams, the magnitude of this offering is truly impressive.”

The ballooning of the meteorite market in recent years is reflective of a growing interest and understanding of space technology. Scientists estimate that 44 tonnes of meteoric material falls on our planet each day, but most of it disintegrates upon entering the atmosphere. Of the stuff that survives, about 90 per cent is just rock, while the rest contains some type of precious metal or mineral.

The Black Beauty Meteorite fetched $81,000 dollars. Courtesy of: Christies
The Black Beauty Meteorite fetched $81,000 dollars. Courtesy of: Christies

Alan Rubin is a research geochemist at University of California, Los Angeles’s Department of Earth and Space. He explains that just 60,000 meteorites make up the world’s collection, two-thirds of which will never be available to the public. Speaking as an expert for Christie’s auction house, he says: “The resource is barely growing; each year there are only five or six fresh falls and 200 or so finds, most of which weigh less than 200 grams and are appreciably weathered. Meteorite hunters, meteorite researchers and meteorite dealers work together in a worldwide enterprise to discover new specimens, uncover details about the origin of the solar system, and make samples available to the discerning collector.”

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Christie’s introduced a category dedicated to the meteorite segment in 2014. Since then, it has held a series of specialist auctions in which many of the lots have sold for well over their initial estimates. In February, a fragment of the Iron Dronino meteorite, which was estimated to sell for $15,000, made $81,000 at auction. The previous year, a Canyon Diablo meteorite fetched $237,000. “Our curated sales at Christie’s have seen extraordinary results,” says James Hyslop, head of science and natural history at the auction house. “The interest in meteorites has increased greatly in recent years. Once the domain of dedicated collectors, they have now captured the attention of the wider art market. Since we introduced this category to Christie’s in 2014, buyers have flocked from antiquities, contemporary art, jewellery, old master paintings, to name a few.”

And it’s not just space rocks that investors want. The Sotheby’s Space Exploration auction last month also included original artwork, lunar, planetary and deep-space photography, spacesuits, large-scale models of spacecraft, and items from various missions. “Many of us remember watching in awe as Armstrong first set foot on the Moon, and remember vividly the excitement and sometimes tragedy associated with each launch. This is a field that requires no special background or training to appreciate, and anyone, regardless of their age, can share in the excitement,” Cassandra Hatton, vice president and senior specialist of the Sotheby’s Books and Manuscripts Department, says. “Space exploration unites us as humans in a common goal of escaping the bonds of Earth to explore what is beyond.”

Sotheby’s held its first auction dedicated to space memorabilia last summer. The sale marked the 48th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing, and achieved total sales of $3.8 million. It also marked a change in American policy that has been instrumental in opening up the market. Unlike the Soviet Union, which lost any claim to its space items when it collapsed, until recently, United States law prohibited all sales of space items, as they were deemed to be owned by Nasa and, ultimately, the American government. This has now changed. “New laws were enacted,” Hatton explains, “allowing US astronauts who participated in the Mercury, Gemini or Apollo missions clear title to any artefacts that they received during their missions, and thus, clear title to anyone that they sell or gift such items to. This means that items that one would normally only find in museums, are now available for private ownership.”

Alongside original charts, maps and engineering models, that first sale offered a photograph taken of Buzz Aldrin by Armstrong on the surface of the Moon, signed by and with a note from Aldrin. There was also the flag carried aboard Apollo 11 signed by Armstrong, Aldrin and the third astronaut on board, Michael Collins, and an unassuming bag marked “Lunar Sample Return”, which still contained traces of lunar dust inside it.

The growing excitement around these sales is summed up by Katia Nounou, head of Sotheby’s Dubai. “From those aspiring to be astronauts to those simply reaching for the stars, we hope space exploration inspires all of our visitors to look back on mankind’s immense achievements, and to reimagine the impossible as possible.”

Updated: December 12, 2018 09:19 PM

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