Rich pay sky-high prices for me­te­orites

Ex­trav­a­gant pur­chases have raised veteran col­lec­tors’ fear of forg­eries

China Daily (Canada) - - CHINA - ByTOMHANCOCK in Urumqi Agence France-Presse

One small check to a busi­ness­man, one gi­ant leap for a me­te­orite: After jour­neys of mil­lions of kilo­me­ters, rocks formed from the pri­mor­dial soup of the so­lar sys­tem have landed on the walls of a Chi­nese show­room.

For some of China’s wealthy, the ter­res­trial trap­pings of fast cars, de­signer bags and deluxe apart­ments are worth­less com­pared with bounty from outer space.

Tong Xian­ping is among the Chi­nese en­trepreneurs pay­ing astro­nom­i­cal prices and mak­ing an im­pact in one of the world's more ar­cane mar­kets.

He spent 1 mil­lion yuan ($163,000) on a chunk of the iron-packed Seym­chan, pieces of which were first found in a Rus­sian riverbed in 1967 an­dare be­lieved to be bil­lions of years old.

“It was worth it,” said Tong, 50, ad­mir­ing the 176-kilo­gram mass, which calls to mind an in­flated lump of coal. “They are news from space.”

Tong­keeps dozens of spec­i­mens un­der spot­lights at his ex­hi­bi­tion space in Urumqi, cap­i­tal of the Xin­jiang Uygur au­ton­o­mous re­gion.

They in­clude a knob­bly brown rock that was part of Gibeon, a me­te­orite that crashed in pre­his­toric south­ern Africa. It also cost around 1 mil­lion yuan, Tong said.

From a safe, he pulled out car­bona­ceous chon­drites he scooped from the sands him­self— an­cient chunks re­sem­bling the neb­ula that pro­duced the plan­ets of the so­lar sys­tem.

“Th­ese are very com­plete frag­ments, and hard to find,” he said.

Flashy pur­chases have made China’s newly wealthy a sub­ject of envy and ridicule.

“Company founders and bosses like big me­te­orites,” said Tong, who made his money deal­ing in jade.

In close or­bit of the safe lounged two fel­low col­lec­tors, sip­ping a lux­ury brand of green tea.

“If there are good me­te­orites, rare ones, I’m will­ing to spend a lot,” said one of the pair, an ex­ec­u­tive sur­named Liu whose firm has won con­struc­tion con­tracts onUrumqi’s first sub­way line.

Tong is happy to be called one of the nou­veau riche, he said, although he dis­missed earthly pos­ses­sions:“Cars are man­u­fac­tured, but there can only be one of each me­te­orite.”

Schol­ars study the rocks for clues to the ori­gins of the so­lar sys­tem, and some be­lieve they seeded Earth with or­ganic mol­e­cules that en­abled life to form.

Tong’s own pas­sion for in­ter­plan­e­tary mat­ter is fa­cil­i­tated by a global mar­ket with roots in re­mote deserts and po­lar re­gions, where the fallen ex­trater­res­trial bod­ies are most eas­ily spot­ted.

Top spec­i­mens fetch hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars at auc­tion, but un­like pa­le­on­tol­o­gists and ar­chae­ol­o­gists, who de­cry loot­ing on their sites, ex­perts in the field wel­come the trade.

“We have a co­op­er­a­tive re­la­tion­ship with the col­lec­tors,” said Mon­ica Grady, a lead­ing me­te­orite sci­en­tist at Bri­tain’s Open Univer­sity. “We can’t af­ford to go out and col­lect, but this small army of deal­ers will do it.”

Find­ers de­pend on aca­demics to ac­credit the spec­i­mens so that they have value on the mar­ket, while at the same time the sci­en­tists keep a chunk for them­selves, she added. But the wave of Chi­nese buy­ers has sent prices sky­ward and raised fears of forg­eries among some veteran col­lec­tors.

“They are just in­ter­ested in how much they are worth, they don’t un­der­stand the sci­ence be­hind them,” said BryanLee, aChinese civil ser­vant who scopes out spec­i­mens at the world’s largest me­te­orite trade show, in the US desert city of Tus­con, Ari­zona.

“It’s led to an in­crease in fakes,” he added.

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