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Rose Mary
By Rosemary McKittrick
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Meteorite; iron and octahedrite; Gran Chaco, Argentina; 16 inches by 12 inches by 8 1/2 inches sold for $4,994. Photo courtesy of Bonhams & Butterfields.
As legends go, it’s one of the taller tales. The South American Indians in the Campo del Cielo region of Argentina kept talking about “irons” falling from the sky. The year was 1576 and the Spanish governor decided to send an expedition into the area to find out for himself.

What his men brought back amazed him. In their possession were several huge iron masses the governor called Meson de Fierro (large table of iron).

Could these really be iron calling cards from the heavens? If so, how did they survive the journey?

Nowadays, we would call the iron masses meteorites. The land where they were discovered was open and brush-covered plains with little water and few rocks. An ideal hunting ground for cosmic debris.

It turns out the Campo del Cielo site was made up of about 20 craters. The largest area measured 70 miles across and 5 miles deep.

Over the last two centuries many huge meteorites have been taken out of the site. Some weighed as much as several tons. With lots of small scoops embedded in them, Campo del Cielo meteorites demonstrate clear-cut character to collectors.

Scientists, using radiocarbon dating of the charred wood found in the craters estimate the fall happened 5800 years ago (plus or minus 200 years) and 3950 years (plus or minus 90 years).

The dates match the oral tradition of the Indians who spoke of the “irons” falling from the sky.

Artifacts have been collected throughout history so it’s no surprise people are mesmerized by meteorites. A journey to another time and place is what they offer. A mystery never to be fully understood. A shot in the dark. A shooting star.

In the United States meteorites are the property of the person upon whose land they are found. However, the government has chosen not to write meteorite ownership "law" into the Code of Federal Regulations.

In truth, the government has been known to split finds with finders. Meteorites found on federal lands belong to the Smithsonian Institution.

In terms of collecting meteorites, some people look for particular geographic regions. Others want certain classifications of meteorites. Others will take whatever they can find.

Rarity and scarcity impact value as well as a meteorite’s shape. How a specimen is prepared also makes a difference.

Sometimes complete meteorite specimens are available. Other times just fragments and slices. Or, even end pieces (as in a loaf of bread).

Today, because of cost, you see micromount specimens too. These are meteorite pieces that fit into a 1 inch by 1 inch case. Usually, they’re polished on one side so you can see the internal structure. They’re portable and easy to store which makes them attractive.

Complete specimens are the best way to go and often the hardest to find. Meteorites are scarce. So, they’re usually priced and sold by the gram.

On Jan. 16, Bonhams & Butterfields in Los Angeles featured a selection of Campo del Cielo meteorites in its Natural History auction. Here are some current values.

Campo del Cielo, Argentina

Meteorite, iron and octahedrite; Gran Chaco, Argentina; 10 inches by 11 inches by 5 inches; $3,525.

Meteorite; iron and octahedrite; Gran Chaco, Argentina; 16 inches by 12 inches by 8 1/2 inches; $4,994.

Meteorite; iron and octahedrite; Gran Chaco, Argentina; 16 inches by 13 inches by 8 inches; $5,875.

Glorieta Mountain, Santa Fe, New Mexico

Meteorite; stony-iron pallasite; occupies its own sub-class; 5 1/2 inches by 3 1/2 inches by 1/8 inches; $5,581.

Chubut, Argentina

Esquel meteorite; stony-iron pallasite; one of the finest examples known; 16 inches by 20 inches by 1/8 inches; $35,250.

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