Update: The Barbotan meteorite sold for $2,750.
What you see: A Barbotan meteorite, which fell over rural France in July 1790. Christie’s estimates it at $2,000 to $3,000.
The expert: Darryl Pitt, curator of the Macovich collection of meteorites and consigner of this and other meteorites in the sale.
Let’s start with the story of the Barbotan meteorite fall. When did it happen? What do we know about it? It was the evening of Saturday, July 24, 1790, the sort of summer night when one might go out for a stroll. And those who were out—it’s been estimated there were more than 1,000 witnesses—saw a fireball blazing through the night sky with attendant sonic booms, pressure waves, and thunderous rumbling, culminating in a shower of stones raining down. The event was documented in newspapers and journals.
The Barbotan meteorite fall took place over Gers, France in 1790. What do we know about Gers and what it would have been like then? Was it a rural village? Gers is a département in the southwest corner of France—like what we would call a county. Gers was one of the original counties of France and was created during the French Revolution, just four months before the Barbotan event. Barbotan lies within Gers and is a small, rural spa town about 80 kilometers [roughly 50 miles] from both Toulouse and Bordeaux.
If the fall hadn’t happened around 10:30 pm on a cloudless night in late July, might it have gone unnoticed? Or was it so loud and spectacular that it would have woken the townsfolk no matter what season it was or what time of day it happened? The event would not have gone unnoticed, but seeing a fireball would have been less likely. It’s hard not to notice rocks falling around you, but it’s something more easily perceived in the light of day.
Who investigated the Barbotan fall first, soon after it happened? Fortunately, a noted physicist, Professor Baudin, was among the folks who were out that night. The Annals of Physics published an extensive account of his experience. Montpellier’s Journal of Science published a similar account.
How did the Barbotan meteorite fall come to be dismissed as a “collective delusion”? The two accounts I just mentioned were dismissed by civic leaders and scientists as being wholly absurd. When the Montpellier account was published, a scientist demanded official testimony. When a mayor provided a notarized document indicating that 300 people had seen what would later be known as the Barbotan meteorite shower, the scientist then wrote something to the effect of how pathetic it was for a municipality to certify an “impossible phenomenon.” If one insists on wearing blinders, one simply cannot see. Rocks falling out of the sky was a notion that did not fit with the preconceived order of things in 1790s France, and so there was a collective interest in maintaining the delusion that meteorites didn’t exist.
How did it come to light that a Barbotan meteorite had struck and possibly killed a herdsman? Was he asleep on a bed that would have been in the path of the meteorite that punched a hole in his roof? Did it leave marks on his body, or is the evidence circumstantial? For those who experienced the meteorite shower and then checked on a missing friend and found his body, a rock, and a hole in the roof, it seems intuitive to make the connection, right? Occam’s razor—look for the simplest explanation. Unfortunately, documentation is scant because of a conundrum: How could a meteorite impact cause a death at a time when meteorites were not believed to exist? This conundrum also would explain why there are so few Barbotan meteorites today—nobody believed rocks could just fall from the sky, so no one kept them. I don’t know that we know anything about the herdsman, but I know there is a great research paper waiting to be done.
I recall being told that no meteorite, to date, is known to have killed a human being. Is the Barbotan incident considered not to count as a human death, for lack of evidence? Exactly right. Until that research paper is written, the herdsman’s death indeed does not count due to a lack of evidence. There has only been one documented death due to a meteorite impact: it was a cow in Venezuela.
How much material was recovered from the Barbotan fall? According to the standard source of such matters, only 6.4 kilograms [14 pounds] are known to exist, and about half of that is in museums. This is despite the fact that Barbotan was a massive meteorite shower including rocks ranging in size from modest pebbles to stones weighing up to 45 kilograms [99 pounds]. I believe the scarcity of material is due to the prevailing notion that the rocks were not worth keeping.
How often do Barbotan meteorites appear at auction? Almost never. Whether in an auction environment or not, Barbotan meteorites are largely unavailable and specimens are coveted. It’s one of the great historic meteorite falls that dates from a time when Western civilization was wrestling with the notion of rocks being able to fall out of the sky.
What is this particular Barbotan meteorite like in person? What is it like to hold it? The first feeling is the humbling sensation that comes from touching any meteorite: here is something that originates with an asteroid shattered during the early history of the solar system, which was then deflected from somewhere between Mars and Jupiter into an Earth-crossing orbit. Whoa. As for this specimen, well, any Barbotan specimen is just so special. It does feel somewhat heavier than one might expect as a result of the amount of iron-nickel in the matrix, and it becomes heavier still when considering its history. Per unit weight, meteorites inspire more awe for me than just about anything, except vaccines.
At two inches by two inches, this example is relatively small in size. Are most Barbotan meteorites small? Most of the specimens that become available to collectors are smaller. There are bigger fragments—this partial slice was removed from one such fragment—but most of the larger material is in major research collections and museums and is pretty much untouchable.
Do we know who gathered this Barbotan meteorite? We don’t, and I wish we did, as it would add to the provenance and the value of this specimen.
This Barbotan meteorite looks much more like a standard rock than others I’ve covered on The Hot Bid. Could you talk a bit about that issue–how it can be hard to distinguish a meteorite from a mundane rock when in the field? Most often, distinguishing terrestrial from extraterrestrial rocks is not so hard. With time and familiarity, all rocks will not look alike. What’s more challenging —and this depends on whether the rock fell in an arid environment or a moist environment—is being able to identify an anomalous stone meteorite that’s been sitting on the surface of the Earth for a while. What’s even more difficult to do in the field is make an accurate assessment of precisely what type of meteorite it is. More and more meteorite hunters are taking handheld XRF [x-ray fluorescence] analyzers into the field to provide quick insight into elemental ratios, which does help, to a degree. A typical fresh stony meteorite will possess, just as the Barbotan meteorite does, a fusion crust from its fiery descent through Earth’s atmosphere, as well as spherules of silica minerals called chondrules and a profusion of tiny flakes of iron-nickel suspended throughout the stone’s matrix. If you spend time enlarging catalog photos of the Christie’s sale, you’ll get a sense of the attributes of different types of meteorites.
What do we know about the provenance of this Barbotan meteorite? The earliest history of this meteorite is lost. We’d love to know who picked it up in France in 1790, and their relationship with the rock. More recently, it came from the collection of Alain Carion, one of the most respected mineral dealers in Europe.
This sample is described as having “fusion crust”. What does that mean? When a meteoroid— think “small asteroid”—plunges through the atmosphere, frictional heating begins. When the meteoroid achieves terminal velocity and begins to cool off as it falls to Earth, the liquified material solidifies into a kind of rind or crust, which envelops what will be called a meteorite upon its impact. Fusion crust is a sought-after aerodynamic artifact. Its presence commands a premium, and at times, the crust itself can be really beautiful.
The Barbotan meteorite also displays “metal flake”. What metal might it be? Iron? Nickel? Both. Primarily iron, with some nickel and a lot of trace elements.
What is the world auction record for a Barbotan meteorite? It will be established on February 23 in this auction. The only Barbotan specimen previously offered that I know of did not sell as it had an appropriately hefty reserve. The specimen in this sale has no reserve. I assure you it will sell for at least double or triple its weight in gold.
Why might this piece stick in your memory? For me, it’s a meteorite of special interest, not only because of its story, but it fell on July 24th, which, centuries later, became my birthday.
How to bid: The Barbotan meteorite is lot 19 in the Christie’s online sale Deep Impact: Martian, Lunar, and Other Rare Meteorites, taking place between February 9, 2021 and February 23, 2021.
Image is courtesy of Christie’s.
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