Whatever Happened To... the Lorton Meteorite?

March 20, 2011

When last we heard, Everybody’s Favorite Meteorite was locked up in legal limbo.

The oblong little rock from outer space lighted up the late afternoon sky across Washington on Jan. 18, 2010, and rocketed into a doctors’ office in Lorton. Moving at a leisurely 200 mph, it crashed into examination room No. 2 in the Williamsburg Square Family Practice, even though it did not have an appointment.

The startled (but unhurt) doctors, Marc Gallini and Frank Ciampi, donated it to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, which houses the world’s largest collection of meteorites.

But then their landlords said not so fast: The 2-by-3-inch visitor from the asteroid belt was estimated to be worth at least $50,000 on the earth-bound meteorite market, in part because of its dramatic and well-documented entrance. Thousands of people saw its fireball descent (the museum has a photograph of the vapor trail), and radar sweeps documented its path across the region.

The landlords demanded its return. Gallini said of their behavior: “It isn’t nice.” Legal wrangling ensued.

We are delighted, a year later, that there is a happy ending.

The landlords eventually dropped their claims, the Smithsonian gave the doctors $10,000 for the Lorton meteorite (its formal name) in early February, and the physicians donated the check to the charity Doctors Without Borders last week. Linda Welzenbach, the meteorite collection manager at the Smithsonian, says it will soon be on public display, though no date has been set.

“We are very happy that it’s staying at the Smithsonian,” Gallini says. “We felt that where it’s belonged since the beginning.”

Deniz Mutlu, a member of the family that owns the building, said his only issue with events was that “we got portrayed as the bad guys.”

“All we wanted to do was donate it to a different institution (Phillips Exeter Academy, in New Hampshire), where my wife attended school,” he said. “The doctors wanted to litigate. They had pro bono counsel. We just let it go.”

The meteorite, which existed for about 4.5 billion years floating around between Mars and Jupiter, now spends its time in a little plastic box deep in the Mason-Clarke Meteorite Vault in the Smithsonian. It has thousands of other little asteroid friends, including three from Mars, to keep it company.

Holding the Lorton meteorite with blue latex gloves, Welzenbach smiled.

“It’s going to stay here where everyone can see it.”

CURIOUS? Tell us what past Washington Post story or person in the news you want us to update. E-mail trents@washpost.com or call 202.334.4208.

Neely Tucker is a staff writer in the Sunday Magazine. He has reported from more than 50 countries around the world and from two dozen of these United States.
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