IMCA Insights – October 2006
About Meteorite Collectors, Collections, and Collecting Types
by Norbert Classen

“There is hardly an object under the sun, made either by man or by nature, that you cannot sell today if you look around for a buyer. Every community is filled with collectors. They collect everything. Bird feathers, animal teeth and claws, rattlesnake rattles, tree leaves and seeds – all are treasures to some people.” Harvey H. Nininger (1887-1986)

Any cultural anthropologist couldn’t agree more with Harvey Harlow Nininger, the father of meteorite collecting, and the world’s first professional meteorite hunter, dealer, and educator. All collecting is doubtlessly based on archaic instincts, on commands anchored in our genes – a fact that holds true for at least most male members of our species. Collecting seems to be closely related to hunting and gathering, and also to bringing home trophies as a proof of our achievements and abilities. But it can be more than that, as you will see.

Some people collect books, while others are into coins, stamps, postcards, fossils, insects, art, antiquities, artifacts, or artillery ammunition. Name an object, and you name a collectible. The same holds true for meteorites, and – as I will point out below – meteorites actually do qualify as the ultimate collectible. But let’s focus on the collectors, first, as there are different types of collectors who are approaching their hobbies in different ways.

Type Collectors & Collecting Types

New meteorite collectors are often recruited from related fields, such as astronomy, science, and natural history. Especially the latter ones are often experienced collectors, such as of rocks and minerals. Natural history collectors are rarely restricted to one field, and they also tend to include meteorite related items into their collecting activities, such as tektites and impactites, and meteorites will often just become one more branch of their larger collections.

There are two related categories of collectors, and a natural history collector also often belongs to one or maybe even to both of the following types: the systematic collector, and the scientific collector. The systematic collector is out for completeness, i.e., he’s always trying to complete a certain set of given types, and there’s practically no limit to that most rewarding endeavour. A beginner might start with a simple set of one collection sample representing each major class of meteorites: a stony, a stony-iron, and an iron meteorite. The advanced systematic collector might try to add samples of each and every classification, group, and subgroup, e.g., adding samples of all types of carbonaceous chondrites such as CI, CM, CV, CK, CO, CR, CH, and CB to his collection. Of course, the same counts for the various groups of all other classes, be it chondrites, achondrites, irons, or stony-irons.

If that goal isn’t high enough he might even try to go for reference samples of the original type specimens for each group, such as Ivuna for the CI group, Mighei for the CM group, Vigarano for the CV group, etc. In this case, the systematic or type collector becomes an advanced type specimen collector, and only very few collectors succeed in building a more or less complete type specimen set, especially since type specimens are usually hard to find, and since other collectors – such as the historical collectors which we will introduce, below – do also compete for these ultra-rare pedigree specimens.

A solely scientific collector, on the other hand, couldn’t care less about historic pedigrees as any meteorite of a certain type or class will do as long as it fits his needs, i.e., a desert find is as interesting to him as a witnessed fall if it belongs to the right class, and as long as it’s reasonably fresh. That makes collecting easier and less expensive, on the one hand, but on the other hand scientific collectors often spend their budgets on thin sections of meteorites, microscopes, and equipment, as well as on all kind of related scientific literature.

This kind of approach can be most rewarding if you’re one of these scientific types, and I know of more than one scientific collector who became a full-fledged meteoriticist, and who’s classifying new meteorites and involved into real planetary science now. Since the science of meteoritics is mostly new land, there’s a lot to explore, and a lot of new things to find out. New types of meteorites are found and described each year, and if you’re the right man or the right woman you can actually take part in the exploration of our solar system, and the worlds beyond. That’s what I call a worthy challenge!

The Historic & the Topical Approach

There are two other related types of collectors: the topical collector, and the collector of historic meteorite falls and finds. The latter type is pretty common, nowadays, and that’s partially a side effect of the apparent inflation of the meteorite market by an abundance of new desert finds from Oman, the Sahara, and especially from NWA, i.e., from the Moroccan souks. The prices of even the rarest classifications dropped substantially during the last few years, and instead of saying welcome to these unique opportunities many long-time collectors turned around – often to protect their investments – and opted for a more historic approach to their collecting activities.

The supply of historic specimens, such as of old witnessed falls, and especially of those meteorites with old handwritten museum labels, and museum numbers painted on them, is very limited as most museums stopped trading new finds and falls for their historic and non-replaceable inventories. Thus, historic pedigree specimens are not just seemingly good investments, but also hard to get – something that has always triggered every collector’s interest, and especially the interest of the type of collector who’s generally into history, or antiquities. But these specimens might also be of interested to a related type of collector that I’d like to introduce, below.

The topical collector is a rather special type, and so are his interests. Some topical collectors focus on the meteorite falls and finds from their home countries or states; e.g., a collector of German meteorites tries to get a sample of each and every German find or fall – a real challenge, and something that’s nearly impossible to achieve. Others are after each and every meteorite of a certain class, such as lunar or Martian meteorites, and also the type specimen collector that has been mentioned above is sort of a topical collector, per se.

There are topical collectors of all kinds, and there are certain related collector types, such as the aesthete who might collect beautiful complete stones and oriented individuals, perfectly etched iron meteorite full slices, or marvellous pallasite samples. Another subtype is the curiosity collector who’s after meteorites with certain stories, such as the so-called “hammer stones”, i.e., meteorites that hit buildings, houses, cars, mailboxes, animals, and humans. In each case, we find a similar pattern as with the systematic and the topical collector: they all strive for completeness, and they want to have samples of each and every “hammer stone”, each and every Indiana meteorite find and fall, each and every pallasite, etc.

Treasure & Trophy Hunters

The picture wouldn’t be complete without mentioning two more types of collectors – those who don’t stay at home enjoying their collections, and acquiring meteorites via the internet, eBay, or on the various meteorite fairs and rock & gem shows: the true meteorite hunters who travel the world to chase fresh witnessed falls, and who search vast deserts for new rare and more common meteorite finds.

There are two basic types of meteorite hunters: the treasure hunter, and the trophy hunter. Both are not necessarily restricted to meteorite hunting – there are several successful hunters who started off with searching for gold nuggets, fossils, or artifacts. But there’s a crucial difference between the two: the genuine treasure hunter is primarily into searching and finding meteorites – possession and ownership are secondary after the find. They often don’t even maintain a real meteorite collection, but only a stock of their finds making them great meteorite dealers, and suppliers of new falls and finds for science and collectors.

The trophy hunter is different, and he’s out for a trophy to bring home, and he’s not the dealer type. On the contrary, it’s sometimes even hard to convince a true trophy hunter to get his samples cut for classification, not to speak of sharing samples with the collecting community. Not the easy kind of fellow to deal with if he has just recovered a new rare type that you’d badly need to fill that hole in your collection.

Many Types of Collectors, One Passion

You may have a hard time figuring out which type of collector you are, especially if you are new to meteorite collecting. The margins are actually floating, and usually we all have traces of the one or the other type in us. I for one, I’m a natural history and scientific collector, but since the field of meteoritics is that vast, I finally focused more and more on differentiated achondrites, and especially on lunar and Martian rocks. Thus, I became a topical collector, although the scientific approach is still central to me and my endeavour. Many of the long-time collectors will report similar developments, and that’s only natural as all true collecting is an evolutionary process.

You may also say that I forgot to mention thin section collectors, micro and macro collectors, etc., but these are only terms to describe a technical, i.e., secondary approach to collecting itself. What I tried to point out is that there are different types of collectors, with distinct mindsets and different backgrounds which determine or at least suggest a certain approach to meteorite collecting. Besides that, I wanted to show that meteorites just have it all, i.e., they are able to fulfil each and every collector’s dream:

If you are into natural history, you will hardly find another field that’s so fascinating, and most basic; and if you are into science and exploration, you will soon recognize that you booked a seat in the front row of contemporary and interdisciplinary research. Systematic and topical collectors will be amazed by what challenges and options are awaiting them in the vast field, and collectors of historic specimens will be rewarded by old labels, publications, and samples. Aesthetes may indulge in the latest pallasite find, while curiosity collectors may add a piece of the most recent hammer. Even treasure and trophy hunters will find a good home in our community, and the best is that meteorite collecting offers a bit of each and every aspect. Meteorites are the ultimate collectible as they have something to offer to all of us: the one passion that connects us all to the history of our solar system – our own history – and to the exploration of other worlds and the universe – our own future. Go for it!


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