What you see: A slab of a meteorite recovered near Seymchan, Siberia, Russia, which features extraterrestrial gemstones. Christie’s estimates it at $20,000 to $30,000.
The expert: James Hyslop, head of Christie’s department of scientific instruments, globes, and natural history.
Was the Seymchan meteorite fall witnessed? Or were the meteorites simply discovered at some point after they hit the Earth’s surface? I believe they were found by metal detector in the 1960s, and people went back to the area to find more.
How often do Seymchan meteorites come to auction? They’re probably disproportionately [represented] because they’re so beautiful. You get a skewed view of meteorites from sales. We really present the best of the best. Pick a meteorite at random, and it’s an ugly rock. For every one I offer, I reject nine. There are some Seymchans in most of my sales.
Is Seymchan a marquee name for meteorite collectors? Are they must-haves? Collectors want Seymchans. This is a great example, and it appeals to collectors who have never seen meteorites before. People who buy in the jewelry sales, the contemporary art sales, the antiquities sales, and the Old Masters sales buy in these sales.
The lot notes say less than 0.2 percent of all meteorites contain pallasites, the extraterrestrial peridots visible on the right side of the meteorite. How are pallasites created? What has to happen? Four and a half billion years ago, there were early bodies like Earth that had iron cores and stony mantles. When these proto-planets broke up, their outsides became stony meteorites, their insides became iron meteorites, and at the boundary between the two [the iron core and the stony mantle], there were pallasites.
Why do pallasites show up in meteorites? Why not emeralds, or diamonds, or other gemstones? It has to do with the geology of the proto-planetary body, but you do find nano-diamonds in meteorites. We had one in the last sale. By nano, I mean on the nano scale. They’re nothing you could put in an engagement ring.
I get that pallasites are gem-quality stones, and olivine isn’t, but can you point out which is which on the photo of the meteorite with the lot? The ones that sparkle, shine, and catch the light–those are pallasites. Olivine is the mineral. Those that look brown are more olivine than pallasite.
Do you typically have both in a meteorite, or can you have all-pallasite meteorites? You do get slices of pallasite meteorite that might miss any olivine. You get some slices that are nicely homogenous, with peridot in an iron matrix. You can get meteorites that are just iron, which are slightly further away from the boundary [between the proto-planetary stony mantle and iron core]. Then you’ve got some that are more transitional, with seas of olivine and pallasite and seas of metal.
Who cuts meteorites, and how does that person decide where and how much to cut? Seymchan is a good meteorite for cutting in that the meteorites on their own do not have much going for them, aesthetically. You don’t destroy much by cutting them open. The shape determines how to cut–slices, cubes, even spheres. An American football-sized meteorite is easy to cut into a sphere. One that has an arm shape is easier to cut into slices.
Who cuts the meteorite? A gem-cutter? No, there are specialized people who do that. It’s not easy. When you cut, you always want the smallest amount of wastage possible. You want to do it as carefully as possible, in lab-like conditions. The iron in pallasites are relatively soft, but for some, you need a diamond blade to cut through them.
This example was cut from a larger meteorite. Do we know how large it was? We don’t, but I would bet it’s under 50 kilos [110 pounds].
How rare is it to come across what we see here–a clear boundary between the iron and the pallasites? That will have informed how to cut it, to bring out the transition between the two. There may have been the temptation to cut the gems off and fashion it into a sphere. I’m glad they didn’t. I like the contrast between the two sides.
I’ve been lying in wait to write about a meteorite like lot 1–one entirely shot through with pallasites–but this jumped out at me because I’ve never seen one like it. Is it as unusual as it seems? This is the first I’ve had with this presentation. That’s why I’m so fond of it. I’ve had a slice where the pallasites looked like a river of metal was running through it. This is a more substantial piece. You don’t see much like this at all, even if you look at the best Seymchans out there.
This meteorite weighs 8.4 pounds–not small, and not huge. Does that matter? As with artworks and sculpture, there does come a point where the size becomes difficult for collectors. We have one in the sale that’s 88 kilos [187 pounds]–probably too big for a desk. 8.4 pounds is a nice size. Conversely, if you get something really heavy, it’s more valuable again. If you can sit it outside a museum and no one can run off with it, its weight becomes a virtue again.
Why does lot 1 have a lower estimate than this meteorite, given that it’s shot through with gemstones, and this is not? It’s smaller. That’s what it comes down to. In gems, they use the four Cs [color, cut, clarity, and carat]. I use the four Ss: size, shape, story, and science. Science–What’s interesting about meteorites is they provide data on the early solar system. Lunar or Martian meteorites have more scientific interest. Story–did it explode over Siberia in the 1950s? Did it take out the dinosaurs? Did it destroy a car? Size–bigger is better. Shape–that encompasses aesthetics. Some meteorites are intrinsically more beautiful than others, and more desirable, and fetch more money.
And how would you judge this meteorite by your four Ss? Size… if you had everything else equal but you cut it in half, it’s $10,000 to $15,000. If it was a bit larger, $40,000 to $60,000. I really like the aesthetics of this–the outer crust, the metal, the pallasite, and the roughly triangular, pleasing shape. In terms of science, it’s rare, and it’s a pallasite. The story originates with a proto-planetary body. We don’t know when it fell to earth, but it was relatively recent. Seymchan was only discovered in the 1960s.
Have you held it? Yes, but not for a while.
What was that like? I still have this [feeling] every time I hold a meteorite–they are four and half billion years old, which is a number so large as to almost be meaningless. The philosophical quandary when you hold it in your hand is it’s an object that comes from space. That’s mind-blowing. And four and a half billion years makes it one-third as old as the universe.
Is it heavy? Actually, with this one, I fell in love with it before I held it. To see the contrast in the stone is stunning.
Why will this meteorite stick in your memory? Having those three different colors to it–the weathered surface, the polished pattern of the metal, and the pallasite crystals–it really stands out from the others. I’ll definitely remember it for a while. This is not really a word, but this is a very covetous object. When I see it, I want it. Some people get that when they see a native gold nugget. It transmits a desire to acquire it.
How to bid: The Seymchan meteorite is lot 22 in Deep Impact: Martian, Lunar and other Rare Meteorites, a sale Christie’s will hold online between February 6 through February 14, 2019.
Hyslop previously appeared on The Hot Bid, talking about a Canyon Diablo meteorite that ultimately sold for $237,500.
Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Christie’s.
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