Ethics of Collecting Meteorites

Meteorite hunters, dealers and collectors are lucky because they enjoy relatively broad support from museum curators and researchers. The reasons for this support are as follows:

  1. Part of the classification process requires 20 g or 20%, whichever is less, to be deposited with the classifying institution for further research needs. This system is not perfect and there are occasional issues with other researchers obtaining this deposited material, especially for rare and scientifically important specimens, but overall this system does work.
  2. Though some research is destructive, the amounts required are often in the 10’s of mg. The most important tool for researchers is the making of thin sections (TS) that allows them to conduct a whole series of tests. Part of the classification process uses the deposited material to make TS. When other researchers require additional material, they will have their own TS made which typically requires 1 g to 3 g of material and they often source that material from dealers, owners of the mass(es) or even collectors.
  3. Meteoriticists and researchers rarely go into the field to hunt and discover meteorites on their own. Part of the issue is time, but the other surprising issue is that unless it is a fresh fall, recognizing a meteorite in the field is difficult. Like any other skill, it takes training to tell the difference between a meteorite and for example terrestrial basalts and other meteorwrongs. Though there is occasional resentment when a scientifically important meteorite gets sold to a private collector thus removing access to further research needs, the majority of scientists and researchers respect and value the role played by hunters, dealer and collectors to bring important meteorites to their attention. Though some scientists lament the rise in meteorite prices, they understand that without a profit motive, they would rarely see any new meteorites and would never have benefited from the bounty of meteorites from the Sahara.
  4. Perhaps the most important reason is that meteorites can be subdivided and not lose their value. Unlike minerals or fossils whose value is destroyed if broken or cut apart, meteorites will often go up in value ($/g) the smaller it is subdivided. To be clear, there are exceptions to this rule like beautifully oriented and/or regmaglypted specimens or specimens that are rare to be found in large sizes (like Tatahouine).

As a dealer, I have never sold an entire meteorite of scientific importance to a private collector without making sure plenty was made available to science. Prices for meteorites have risen and sometimes dramatically due to increasing interest from a growing base of meteorite collectors and better educated hunters (especially in Sahara), but some have also fallen dramatically like Lunar meteorites. We are all at the mercy of market forces and there is nothing inherently unethical about profit motives. Minerals and fossils have thus far increased much faster than meteorites, and this dynamic has caused a great deal of conflict between these communities and scientists. This conflict has led to questions of ethics. Whose side is right? They both are but until they are both willing to hear each other’s concerns, the conflict will continue. As members of the meteorite community, we should all strive to address concerns before then turn into conflict that could limit availability of these visitors from outer space.

As long as the meteorites were hunted, found and exported in accordance to the laws of the country of origin, then the ethical issues are greatly diminished. However, that is not to say that there are no ethical issues. We all recognize that just because something is legal, it does not necessarily make it ethical. As we are neither lawyers nor ethicists, our best advice is to discuss any concerns you may have with your dealer.

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