Ownership battle brews over Virginia meteorite

By Neely Tucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 29, 2010; A01

Today's episode of Everybody's Favorite Meteorite brings the nation disturbing news: That spunky bit of chondrite that plummeted into a Lorton doctors' office on Jan. 18, delighting an international audience with news of its fireball entrance, may not go on to a spot of glory in the Smithsonian, after all.

The doctors who were nearly bonked on the head by the thing when it came plummeting from the asteroid belt into Examining Room No. 2 in the Williamsburg Square Family Practice, gave it to the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. In return, Smithsonian officials planned to give them $5,000 in appreciation. The doctors, Marc Gallini and Frank Ciampi, planned to donate the money to earthquake relief efforts in Haiti. The Smithsonian planned to put the meteorite on prominent display and study it as a 4.5 billion-year-old postcard from the formation of the solar system.

"We knew meteorite hunters would offer them something for it, and we wanted to be competitive," said Linda Welzenbach, the meteorite collections manager at the Smithsonian.

But in an extraterrestrial soap opera still unfolding, the landlords of the Virginia building that houses the doctors' office now say they are the rightful owners of the meteorite. Museum officials said the landlords informed them, midday Thursday, that they were coming to take the stone out of the Smithsonian by sundown.

Gallini and Ciampi hustled to get a lawyer to fire off a letter to the museum, barring them from releasing the stone, pending resolution of ownership.

"The landlords intend to take it," Gallini said. "It isn't nice."

Deniz Mutlu, a member of the family who owns the building, said Thursday afternoon that "it's staying in the Smithsonian for now, and that's all I can say."

His brother and fellow landlord, Erol Mutlu, sent Gallini an e-mail earlier this week, politely demanding the rock be given to the family: "It's evident that ownership is tied to the landowner. The U.S. courts have ruled that a meteorite becomes part of the land where it arrives through 'natural cause' and hence the property of the landowner; the notion of 'finders keepers' has been rejected by the Supreme Court of Oregon."

The Smithsonian is just trying to stay out of it.

"It will remain securely under the care of the Smithsonian until the ownership is established," said Randall Kremer, director of public affairs of the National Museum of Natural History. "Right now, we accept the premise that the doctors are the owners."

This sort of saga isn't exactly unheard of in the quirky world of meteorite hunting, where meteorites and things they hit can be sold for tens of thousands of dollars. A mailbox in Claxton, Ga., that was clobbered by a meteorite in 1984 was sold in a 2007 auction for $82,750. The auction netted a total of $750,000 in sales of space rocks, even though the owner of a 30-pound piece of a meteorite that fell on Willamette, Ore., pulled the rock out of the auction. The highest bid was $300,000. The owner rejected it as too low.

"The Lorton meteorite is worth $50,000, easy," said Robert A. Haag, a colorful Arizona dealer in space stuff for 32 years. "A meteorite goes through a roof, or hits a car, something like that, about once a year, somewhere in the world. This one landed in a doctors' office, while they were there. People saw the fireball in the sky. It was right outside of Washington. The stone itself is pretty common but all the circumstances make it a real collectible." The entire Lorton meteorite weighs about a half-pound, but it fragmented into three main pieces and four or five bits the size of a dime. The largest piece is a 2-by-3-inch chunk.

Haag compares the searches for meteorites to treasure hunting and says he has sold more than $10 million in meteorites in his career, now mostly on his Web site, http://www.meteorites.com. He and other meteorite hunters believe there are more chunks from the meteorite that landed in Lorton still to be found.

There are about 27,000 meteorites in collections around the world, according Welzenbach, the Smithsonian collections manager. The Smithsonian has about half, 14,738. About 85 percent of all meteorites found on Earth are chondrite, formed from chondrules -- molten droplets that were floating around in the solar nebula some 4.5 billion years ago, when the solar system was beginning to form.

These remnants eventually began orbiting the sun in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. When something knocks them out of that orbit, perhaps an impact with another asteroid, they spend thousands of years drifting through space before being pulled into the Earth's gravitational field.

The remnants are valuable to scientists, particularly when discovered just after impact, because they have not been subject to the gravity, erosion and atmospheric pressures of Earth, and thus can offer insights about what the solar system looked like long ago.

The only other sources of known meteorites are from the moon or Mars, scientists say, but those are far more rare than the chondrite.

Internet auction sites such as eBay have made buying and selling meteorite bits and chunks far more lucrative in recent years, said Michael Cottingham, a New Mexico-based hunter and dealer. Prices for small bits of the space rock can vary on the Web site from $10 for a common bit of meteorite that landed long ago, up to thousands of dollars for a newly landed specimens.

"When you get a new meteorite like the one in Lorton, the low-end figure gets forgotten," Cottingham says. "You're just not going to go find some meteorites and pay all your bills."

The Lorton meteorite -- ones that are seen falling often are named -- has a bid to enter history, many agree, as one of the most well-documented meteorite crashes in the country.

"We call it 'the people's rock,' " said Gallini, the doctor. "We think it should stay in the Smithsonian, something for everyone to see."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company