Our fas­ci­na­tion with space is cre­at­ing the ul­ti­mate lux­ury pur­chase, finds So­phie Prideaux

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Our fas­ci­na­tion with outer space is spurring de­mand for pre­cious rocks that aren’t from this planet

Some of the most cov­eted ob­jects in the world come from rocks. Di­a­monds, ru­bies, emer­alds – they are all carved from the Earth’s crust be­fore be­ing turned into trea­sures. But the most prized rocks of all aren’t ac­tu­ally from this planet.

While they may be duller in ap­pear­ance, the ap­peal of own­ing a me­te­orite comes from a dif­fer­ent place – a place of hu­man fas­ci­na­tion and cu­rios­ity, and the idea of wel­com­ing a piece of an­other world into your own. With some fetch­ing US$1,000 (Dh3,672) per gram, these stones are more ex­pen­sive than plat­inum and gold. And this mar­ket, which has tra­di­tion­ally been the ter­ri­tory of a small group of niche col­lec­tors, is now be­ing in­fil­trated by the wider art world.

On Novem­ber 29, Sotheby’s auc­tioned off the only known pieces of the Moon in pri­vate hands. On the sur­face, the three pea-sized rocks may not look like much, but they made his­tory. The sam­ples had been through the auc­tion house once be­fore, in 1993, when they fetched more than 10 times their orig­i­nal es­ti­mate, to sell for $442,500. When they came back into the hands of the Sotheby’s auc­tion­eers last month, they sold for $855,000.

In Septem­ber 1970, the un­manned Luna 16 landed on the Moon, drilled a 35-cen­time­tre-deep hole into its sur­face, and ex­tracted a core sam­ple be­fore re­turn­ing the soil safely back to Earth. More than 70 el­e­ments were trace­able in the sam­ple, es­ti­mated to be 3.4 bil­lion years old. It was later pre­sented as a gi to Nina Ivanovna Korol­eva, the widow of the chief de­signer and di­rec­tor of the Soviet Space pro­gramme, Sergei Korolev, who never got to see it ma­te­ri­alise. No other sam­ple has ever been Gifted to an in­di­vid­ual by a na­tion.

While Sotheby’s Moon stones are ex­ceed­ingly rare, me­te­orites are be­com­ing quite a big busi­ness for auc­tion houses. In Oc­to­ber, a 5.4-kilo­gram lu­nar me­te­orite thought to be one of the largest ever dis­cov­ered, sold for a stag­ger­ing $612,000 at a Bos­ton auc­tion house, sur­pass­ing its ini­tial es­ti­ma­tion of $500,000. At the time, RR Auc­tion of­fered some in­sight into how it val­ued the me­te­orite, known as Buagaba. “A unique or un­paired me­te­orite is more de­sir­able to col­lec­tors and per­haps more valu­able to sci­ence, es­pe­cially in those rare in­stances in which the sin­gle find is a very large stone,” a rep­re­sen­ta­tive ex­plained. “Such is the case with Buagaba; it has no known pair­ings, and is the only ex­am­ple of this me­te­orite. Con­sid­er­ing that the av­er­age size of a lu­nar me­te­orite find is a few hun­dred grams, the mag­ni­tude of this of­fer­ing is truly im­pres­sive.”

The bal­loon­ing of the me­te­orite mar­ket in re­cent years is re­flec­tive of a grow­ing in­ter­est and un­der­stand­ing of space tech­nol­ogy. Sci­en­tists es­ti­mate that 44 tonnes of me­te­oric ma­te­rial falls on our planet each day, but most of it dis­in­te­grates upon en­ter­ing the at­mos­phere. Of the stuff that sur­vives, about 90 per cent is just rock, while the rest con­tains some type of pre­cious metal or min­eral.

Alan Ru­bin is a re­search geo­chemist at Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Los Angeles’s De­part­ment of Earth and Space. He ex­plains that just 60,000 me­te­orites make up the world’s col­lec­tion, two-thirds of which will never be avail­able to the pub­lic. Speak­ing as an ex­pert for Christie’s auc­tion house, he says: “The re­source is barely grow­ing; each year there are only five or six fresh falls and 200 or so finds, most of which weigh less than 200 grams and are ap­pre­cia­bly weath­ered. Me­te­orite hun­ters, me­te­orite re­searchers and me­te­orite deal­ers work to­gether in a world­wide en­ter­prise to dis­cover new spec­i­mens, uncover de­tails about the ori­gin of the so­lar sys­tem, and make sam­ples avail­able to the dis­cern­ing col­lec­tor.”

Christie’s in­tro­duced a cat­e­gory ded­i­cated to the me­te­orite seg­ment in 2014. Since then, it has held a se­ries of spe­cial­ist auc­tions in which many of the lots have sold for well over their ini­tial es­ti­mates. In Fe­bru­ary, a frag­ment of the Iron Dronino me­te­orite, which was es­ti­mated to sell for $15,000, made $81,000 at auc­tion. The pre­vi­ous year, a Canyon Di­ablo me­te­orite fetched $237,000. “Our cu­rated sales at Christie’s have seen ex­tra­or­di­nary re­sults,” says James Hys­lop, head of sci­ence and nat­u­ral his­tory at the auc­tion house. “The in­ter­est in me­te­orites has in­creased greatly in re­cent years. Once the do­main of ded­i­cated col­lec­tors, they have now cap­tured the at­ten­tion of the wider art mar­ket. Since we in­tro­duced this cat­e­gory to Christie’s in 2014, buy­ers have flocked from an­tiq­ui­ties, con­tem­po­rary art, jew­ellery, old master paint­ings, to name a few.”

And it’s not just space rocks that in­vestors want. The Sotheby’s Space Ex­plo­ration auc­tion last month also in­cluded orig­i­nal art­work, lu­nar, plan­e­tary and deep-space pho­tog­ra­phy, space­suits, large-scale mod­els of space­craft , and items from var­i­ous mis­sions. “Many of us re­mem­ber watch­ing in awe as Arm­strong first set foot on the Moon, and re­mem­ber vividly the ex­cite­ment and some­times tragedy as­so­ci­ated with each launch. This is a field that re­quires no spe­cial back­ground or train­ing to ap­pre­ci­ate, and any­one, re­gard­less of their age, can share in the ex­cite­ment,”

We hope space ex­plo­ration in­spires our vis­i­tors to reimag­ine the im­pos­si­ble as pos­si­ble

Cas­san­dra Hat­ton, vice pres­i­dent and se­nior spe­cial­ist of the Sotheby’s Books and Manuscripts De­part­ment, says. “Space ex­plo­ration unites us as hu­mans in a com­mon goal of es­cap­ing the bonds of Earth to ex­plore what is be­yond.”

Sotheby’s held its first auc­tion ded­i­cated to space mem­o­ra­bilia last sum­mer. The sale marked the 48th an­niver­sary of the Apollo 11 Moon land­ing, and achieved to­tal sales of $3.8 mil­lion. It also marked a change in Amer­i­can pol­icy that has been in­stru­men­tal in open­ing up the mar­ket. Un­like the Soviet Union, which lost any claim to its space items when it col­lapsed, un­til re­cently, United States law pro­hib­ited all sales of space items, as they were deemed to be owned by Nasa and, ul­ti­mately, the Amer­i­can gov­ern­ment. This has now changed. “New laws were en­acted,” Hat­ton ex­plains, “al­low­ing US as­tro­nauts who par­tic­i­pated in the Mer­cury, Gem­ini or Apollo mis­sions clear ti­tle to any arte­facts that they re­ceived dur­ing their mis­sions, and thus, clear ti­tle to any­one that they sell or gi such items to. This means that items that one would nor­mally only find in mu­se­ums, are now avail­able for pri­vate own­er­ship.”

Along­side orig­i­nal charts, maps and engi­neer­ing mod­els, that first sale of­fered a pho­to­graph taken of Buzz Aldrin by Arm­strong on the sur­face of the Moon, signed by and with a note from Aldrin. There was also the flag car­ried aboard Apollo 11 signed by Arm­strong, Aldrin and the third astro­naut on board, Michael Collins, and an unas­sum­ing bag marked “Lu­nar Sam­ple Re­turn”, which still con­tained traces of lu­nar dust in­side it.

The grow­ing ex­cite­ment around these sales is summed up by Ka­tia Nounou, head of Sotheby’s Dubai. “From those as­pir­ing to be as­tro­nauts to those sim­ply reach­ing for the stars, we hope space ex­plo­ration in­spires all of our vis­i­tors to look back on mankind’s im­mense achieve­ments, and to reimag­ine the im­pos­si­ble as pos­si­ble.”

The Black Beauty me­te­orite fetched al­most Dh300,00 at a Christie’s auc­tion

Above, ‘ The Fi­nal Im­pos­si­bil­ity: Man’s Tracks on the Moon’ by Nor­man Rock­well, de­picts Neil Arm­strong stand­ing on the moon’s sur­face, as Buzz Aldrin de­scends from the Ea­gle. Op­po­site page, above, the three Moon rocks that sold for Dh3.1 mil­lion at auc­tion last month. Op­po­site page, be­low, the Apollo 11 Con­tin­gency Lu­nar Sam­ple Re­turn bag

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