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February 14, 2002
Uproar Over a Sliced, and Revered, Meteorite
By KENNETH CHANG
When the American Museum of Natural History opened its gleaming new
planetarium two years ago, it gave its highest place of honor to the
Willamette meteorite, the pitted, 15 1/2-ton boulder that fell to Earth
more than 10 millennia ago.
But unknown to most of its admirers ‹ or until recently to the Oregon
tribe that considers it sacred ‹ the meteorite has a flat spot at the
top, created by museum curators in 1998 when they cut off a 28-pound
chunk and traded it to a private collector for half an ounce of Mars.
On Sunday, the collector, Darryl Pitt of New York City, sold a six-inch,
3.4-ounce slice off that chunk for $11,000 at an auction.
A second, smaller piece of a meteorite Mr. Pitt obtained in a trade with
the Natural History Museum in London a couple of months ago sold for
"This is not anything that is unusual," said Mr. Pitt, whose Macovich
Collection is the largest private collection of meteorites in the world.
But the auction dismayed descendants of the Clackamas Indians of Oregon
who regard the meteorite as a spiritual union of earth, sky and water.
"Would someone want to auction off a crucifix, one of the holy statues
out of the Catholic Church or something like that?" asked Kathryn
Harrison, former chairwoman of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde,
which includes the Clackamas.
The Oregonian, the state's largest newspaper, took up the cause, accusing
the American museum in an editorial on Saturday of showing "disgraceful
stewardship" of the meteorite. "If we had our way, it would be heading
back on the next westbound freight train," the newspaper said.
Dr. David Wheeler, a chiropractic physician in West Linn, Ore., who
bought the smaller thumbnail-size piece that weighs a third of an ounce,
said he wanted to discuss with the tribal members how he might share his
new purchase with them.
"I did it, because I wanted to bring a small part of the meteor back to
Oregon," Dr. Wheeler said. "I may end up donating it to them."
Matt Morgan, a meteorite trader in Colorado who runs the Internet site
Mile High Meteorites, bought the larger piece "because it's a historic
American meteorite and one which I don't have," he said. "It's one of the
things you always read about in the books."
Mr. Morgan said he and two other investors would cut that piece into six
or seven smaller pieces, keeping some for themselves and selling the
others. "We'd like to recoup some of the investment we made," he said.
The Willamette meteorite, the largest meteorite ever found in the United
States, is believed to have originally landed in Canada, and then was
pushed by glaciers to Oregon's Willamette Valley thousands of years ago.
The American Museum of Natural History bought it in 1906.
Two years ago, after the opening of the museum's Rose Center, the tribes
demanded that the meteorite be returned.
The tribes and the museum settled their dispute with an agreement in
which the meteorite remains in New York and tribal members can conduct a
private ceremony once a year at the center.
But dozens of pieces of the Willamette meteorite were removed over the
years and scattered to institutions around the world.
Meteorite collectors trade pieces of space rock the way boys once traded
baseball cards: a slice of Mars for a chip of carbonaceous chondrite, a
Moon rock for a new meteorite find from the Sahara.
Unlike curators of art or fossils, where great value is placed on the
integrity of objects, meteorite curators at major museums participate in
the trading game, giving samples of their collection to private
collectors in exchange for newly discovered rocks.
"In meteoritics, it's long been a tradition to trade pieces of
specimens," said Dr. Michael J. Novacek, provost of science at the
American Museum of Natural History. Scientists routinely cut meteorites
apart for scientific study exchange and send pieces back and forth for
different laboratories to analyze.
Trading pieces of the museum's meteorites with private collectors allows
the museum to acquire new, rare meteorites, Dr. Novacek said. "It
ultimately had a scientific purpose," he said.
In exchange for the 28-pound piece of the Willamette meteorite, Mr. Pitt
gave a part of the Governador Valadares meteorite, which landed in Brazil
in 1958, one of a few known to have come from Mars.
Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company
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