Meteorite prices -- sky high and sure to fall

The fourth largest piece of the Moon ever made available to the public, sold for $330,000 on Oct. 14, 2012, at Heritage Auctions' meteorite auction in New York.
Heritage Auctions

(MoneyWatch) Get 'em while they're hot! Well, maybe not, in thecase of the sudden mania for meteorite fragments that slammed into a lake near the Russian city of Chelyabinsk on Friday -- and not just because the lake was frozen.

Meteor collectors and dealers from around the world have descended on the Siberian area where the meteor hit, and chunks of the celestial debris are already said to be hitting the market. Some reports say the little rocks are being offered for as much as several times the price of gold, currently at $1,604 an ounce.

But if the stunning videos of the incident have made you feel like venturing into the still-rarified world of meteorite collecting, take a breath.

There is a typical market trajectory -- and descent -- that follows the arrival of rocks from space. First comes a surge of exuberance among collectors and dealers (many of whom wear both hats at once). Following the Chelyabinsk strike, there is a mini gold rush of sorts going on in the Ural Mountains where the meteor hit, said said Jim Walker, director of fine minerals at Dallas-based Heritage Auctions.

"It's a small version of the Oklahoma land rush or the 49ers in California," said Walker, alluding to the hordes who flocked to the state to pan for gold in the mid-19th century after big deposits of the metal were found.

Dealers waving around wads of money bring out farmers and other locals waving around lots of rocks. Some of these discoveries may or may not be real meteorites. The dealers will know right away -- and the holes in the roof of a farmhouse aren't the main indicator. "The meteorite market is naturally resistant to fakery," said Walker. 

When dealers get their hands on the real thing, by contrast, the money paid will be high. 

This slice of the Seymchan meteorite fetched $43,750 at a recent Heritage Auctions sale.
Heritage Auctions

And that's why it's best to not chase this market.

"I would advise people to hold off," Walker said of the current find. "The highest prices are paid early. Then they decline to a reasonable level after people have determined how much material has been found. And I have a gut feeling that there is going to be a lot of material in this case."

Just as dealers and collectors descend on an area where a meteor hits, so too do scientists and specialists who are in it for more than the money. Members of the British-based Meteorical Society and other groups classify a meteorite's scientific properties, and get a good idea of how much of the stuff there is. In some instances, there is so much it -- many tons in the case of the Campo del Cielo meteorites that hit Argentina several thousand years ago, for example -- that prices for shards of that meteorite have fallen below 25 cents a gram.

The higher end of the meteorite market runs much higher. Heritage and other auction houses, such as I.M. Chait in Beverly Hills, Calif., host regular "natural history" sales, which offer meteorites. A Martian meteorite weighing 10.5 ounces sold in May, 2012, for $94,000. In October, Heritage sold a moon rock, the fourth largest lunar meteor ever found, for $330,000.

Some meteors, which can have strange, other-worldly qualities, are beautiful to look at; others may be less attractive but still interesting to ponder. "The Allende meteor is older than our solar system," Walker said of the rocks that fell in the Mexican state of Chihuahua in 1969. "It's amazing that you can hold something like that in your hand.

And then he made a heartfelt pitch for his corner of the collecting universe: "These kinds of things should be taking their place along with fine art for cool things to have in the house."