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The BBC's Matt McGrath
The trade in meteorites is said to be in a frenzy
 real 28k

Prof Bruce Cairncross, Johannesburg Geological Museu
It's no surprise if meteorites are being stolen to order
 real 28k

Friday, 11 May, 2001, 04:05 GMT 05:05 UK
Trade growing in stolen meteorites
Meteorite from Mars PA
Lunar and Martian meteorites are priceless
By the BBC's Matt McGrath

Thieves may be stealing meteorites to order to feed a growing international trade in space rocks, a BBC investigation has revealed.

Collectors are willing to pay vast sums of money for the rarest specimens and it seems this has now attracted a criminal element.

We have learned of two major thefts in the past six months in South Africa and Germany.

With a piece of lunar meteorite now commanding a price of 20,000 a gram - that is 3,000 times the price of gold - experts believe the number of thefts can only increase.

Internet driven

Dr Monica Grady, who leads the Meteorites and Micrometeorites Programme at the Natural History Museum, London UK, said: "I think once communication gets round that meteorites are very collectable, very tradable, then it's possible there will be more theft.

"With better communications over the past few years on the internet, people are able to buy and sell meteorites internationally. There are more people going out and collecting them for themselves," she told the BBC.

"It's easier, for example, to get into the Sahara to get meteorites and bring them back and sell them. There is a huge increase in the numbers of meteorites that are actually on the market, and a corresponding increase in the number of people that are buying them and are willing to collect them."

One of the pieces stolen in South Africa, a nickel-iron meteorite found in the Vryburg district of the Northern Cape Province, is described as "scientifically priceless". It was just one item in a mass theft of more than 150 meteorite and mineral specimens from a museum.

Red Planet

The German meteorite, known as the Ramsdorf main mass, was taken from a private collector. Other valuables left behind by the thieves made police think the space rock was stolen to order.

Beyond their market price, meteorites are hugely important to science. Some specimens, which incorporate grains that have been largely unaltered since the birth of the Solar System, can tell us how the Earth and other planets formed. The 16 Martian meteorites, for example, have revealed astonishing information about the Red Planet's wet and warm past, and have even suggested the presence of microbial lifeforms.

But although science may be a victim of this new crime, it might also be an unwitting accomplice, warns Ralph P Harvey, assistant professor at Case Western Reserve University, Ohio, and principal of the US Antarctic Search for Meteorites program.

He told the BBC that the methods used to get meteorites out of Africa, particularly Morocco and Libya, were questionable. He said private collectors were going to these countries to obtain the space rocks before selling them on to academic institutions. "But its not clear that these meteorites came out of these countries legally," he said.

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See also:

10 Mar 00 | Sci/Tech
Lunar rock reveals life's clues
26 Oct 00 | Sci/Tech
Martian clues to life from space
22 May 00 | Sci/Tech
Martian meteorite found in Oman
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