Meteorite auctions don't happen very often in the U.K. There is eBay of course, but to see a well known collection being put up for auction is very rare.
I got to know Rob Elliott in 2001 just as my interest in astronomy led towards meteorites; I was introduced to him by a fellow Astronomical Society of Edinburgh member. The person in question had been working in Oman in the oil industry and taken a week off to search for meteorites. His quest was fortuitous and a new strewnfield was found yielding approximately 100 chondritic meteorites. Some of these were distributed around the Astronomical Society members' meeting in 2000 and when I held this stone that was so incredibly ancient and had travelled from the depths of the asteroid belt I had shivers going up my spine. I felt the kind of excitement that I had felt as a teenager when I got my first Pink Floyd ticket! I needed to know more about these stones. I wanted one really badly!
I was invited to see Rob and look at his collection in Milton of Balgonie in Fife; about 45 minutes drive from my Edinburgh home. On meeting Rob I was welcomed into his home by Irene his wife, and shown the meteorite room. It was a large room with locks to make Fort Knox look like a tool shed, CCTV cameras, humidity control and the most astounding collection I have ever seen. Museums don't show the majority of their collections and so the public are starved of the wealth of samples in their vaults.
The Rob Elliott Collection at Fernlea Meteorites.
Rob kindly showed me around the various glass cases with labelled irons, pallasites, chondrites and even a Salyut space craft helium tank. This was where I started buying meteorites and I purchased samples of Sikhote Alin, Gibeon, Juancheng and Allende. On my next visit to see Rob he lent me a Gibeon weighing 9.5kg and the 14.5kg main mass of the Bechar chondrite. Big, heavy and impressive rocks that people go 'wow' over. I took these to some meteorite talks that I started to give at my daughters' school, also at Rotary and Probus clubs. After several further visits to see Rob, each time adding to my collection he told me about the meteorite he and Irene had found whilst searching in the English countryside, now known as the Hambleton pallasite.
It was with quite a shock that I heard Rob was to sell his entire collection, and give up dealing meteorites. When I heard they were to be auctioned in Edinburgh I knew this was going to be an event to witness first hand. The catalogue first came to my attention through a web link on the BIMS daily digest in July and then the published catalogue in print a few weeks later. The photos and details of the meteorites on auction were worth the purchase price of £10 and a delightful addition to the meteorite library.
I made three trips to Lyon and Turnbull in Broughton Place to view the collection prior to sale. It was strange to see the collection that I had got to recognise in another location. A bit sad as well because that was it going for good, no more trips to Rob's to gaze fondly at meteorites and have a beer or two. Also the national media had picked up on the story. I saw several newspaper articles and heard radio and TV coverage of the run up to the auction.
Lyon and Turnbull, Edinburgh.
August 18th came around and having taken a half day from work I went into the auction room and immediately saw Rob and Irene. They greeted me like an old friend and I was able to sit with them during the auction. Rob popping away from time to time to speak to reporters from press and radio. There was even a film crew from Russia in the room! The seats were about 80% full, with desks either side of the hall for phone and internet bidding. The sale got off to a start at 2.00pm and the bidding was very quick. The first lot was a 20.2kg Campo del Cielo. It was sold for £1800. Several further Campos (individuals and etched slices) went but the biggie, a 160kg individual which had taken 4 guys and a strong rug to lift in place went for £1000. It didn't have quite the aesthetic beauty of the 20.2kg but what a door stop!
Irons - 160kg Campo in foreground.
Lot 5 was an 11kg Gao Guenie which failed to sell, but its neighbour a 4kg Gao went for £800. Not bad as the catalogue was offering it from between £1800 - £2400 I was surprised that the main mass of Bechar 001 did not sell, but perhaps an L5 of 14.5kg is not that much of a temptation when there is some Mars and Lunar rock of less than 1g up for grabs!
One of the big surprises of the day was the beautiful 6.95kg Estherville slice being purchased over the phone from a buyer in Estherville, Iowa. It's going back home for the princely sum of £6800 plus a first class seat I guess.
There was a fearsome phone fight for the Zagami Shergottite 1.7g. The reserve was £250 but it went for a colossal £600. A slice of the planet Mars will always get a good price, but I didn't expect that. And yet the same thing happened for a 0.67g fragment of DaG 400, a lunar breccia which went for £1100. While we're on the subject of small pieces, one of Rob's own discoveries was the Glenrothes meteorite. 0.6g was up for sale with a reserve of £100 but it went for £400. There is only a TKW of 14.8g of the Glenrothes, but apparently Rob has only a few crumbs left. All has gone to collectors, museums or the person who bought probably the last piece for sale.
The oldest meteorite with a terrestrial age of 110 million years was probably my favourite. It is a 3.9kg slice of the Lake Murray iron. A fabulous etched slice showing broad 115mm wide bands of kamacite and taenite and with lovely 'rosettes' of swirling shreibersite inclusions. It had lain in Antler Sandstone in Oklahoma for 110 million years prior to being found in 1933 and then recognised as a meteorite in 1952. It went for £4000.
3.9kg Lake Murray.
There were two micro meteorite collections on sale with quite healthy sized pieces mostly in the 15g - 30g range in the first collection from around the world. The first had a piece of bark from Tunguska and I felt obliged to bid on this lot. However, it went way beyond my budget so I had to bow out gracefully. The second was of smaller pieces in the 1g - 5g range of American and Australian polished part slices.
Of the more unusual items on sale there were four Gibeon irons turned into wedding rings. Each one was etched and showing the Widmanstatten (Thompson) structure. Two had been gold plated and the others rhodium plated. All were sold for between £ 160 and £220.
All the time I was trying to take notes of which lot went for what price, but chatting to Rob and Irene made me lose my place occasionally and find I had missed several lots. Never mind, I discovered through BIMS that Lyon and Turnbull have put it all on the web. At the time of writing details can be found here
The ones that got away were the Hambleton meteorite. Of the 18 unsold out of 171 items, neither the main mass of 5.8kg nor the polished part slice of 725g went anywhere, but back home. As Rob said to me "you need deep pockets for this one". No kidding!
Hambleton 5.8kg main mass (left) and 725g slice.
However, the Salyut helium tank went off to a new home for £1650. A very fine piece of titanium with many micrometeorite impact craters pock marking its surface. They have just the same structure as other impact craters on the Moon, Mars or elsewhere and are a fine sight in a lens, but only 1-2 mm across.|
The auction ended just before 4.00pm and I had to rush away for a prior engagement with U2 at Hampden Park in Glasgow. On departing Rob said he was pleased with the outcome and invited me over for a beer or two in the near future.
I'll take him up on his offer and I wonder what will be in the former meteorite room.
Angus Self FBIMS
20th August 2009.