(This is a copy of a letter sent to the IMCA membership by Russ Finney regarding a New York Times article published April 5, 2011 focused on meteorite collectors and dealers - several IMCA members requested that it be make available on the internet.)
As a long time meteorite collector with a very large cabinet (over two thousand plus specimens) - and as a meteorite photographer who has visited many of the world's great museums and photographed countless amazing specimens - I have always had nothing but great interactions with the curators and scientists I have had the pleasure to meet.
Modern meteorite hunting and retrieval methods promoted by people like Harvey Nininger and Oscar Monnig served to kindle a fire which has literally roared over the last twenty years with new finds from ANSMET scientists, desert nomads, internet connected meteorite hunters, the general TV watching public, and museum curators releasing excess historical cuttings. These meteorite sources have created a bonanza of fantastic and important new material appropriately shared by scientists and collectors alike.
Scientists have benefited from tons of new material to analyze - and collectors have benefited with cabinets of scientifically classified specimens that were truly the stuff of dreams thirty years ago. I know this because I have personally gone through the years of effort and research and funding to build my own large collection.
As a member of both the Meteoritical Society and the IMCA I have supported and followed ethical guidelines for the collecting and the curation of the specimens which I hold in my private collection. I have donated numerous specimens to various organizations. I have submitted a thousand of my very highest quality photographs for inclusion in the scientific MET-BULL database - with many more to come.
“The collectors association, founded in 2004 in Nevada, now has hundreds of members around the globe. And while some traders deal in legitimate exports, many do not.”
Many do not?
Where did the NYT get any input to validate that statement? To become a member of IMCA we are required to accept and abide by an ethical principal to only collect and trade legally exported meteorites.
In addition, the IMCA is the one global organization that is committed to making sure that traded specimens are always 100% legal and authentic. I can't express how amazed I was by this implication that many of our IMCA members are somehow promoting illegitimate exports and supporting an illegal market.
Over the years I have been a strong supporter of the current classification protocols and methods now in place to get independently retrieved material into the hands of scientists worldwide to the benefit of both the research and collecting communities. I think this process must be working fairly well because I often hear about the current classification backlogs. I joined the Meteoritical Society and the IMCA to do my part as a collector to help in making this process even better.
I think that all of us are aware - both scientists and collectors - that there are native people living in the far and dangerous corners of the world who are in a position to retrieve specimens that are out of the reach of scientists and collectors due to remoteness, finances, and danger. Is this retrieval process really a black market for space trinkets setup by widely visible local and internationally connected dealers to secretly remove illegal material from these remote places to sell for all-to-see on eBay?
If it is - as the NYT article seems to imply - then a very huge NWA, DaG, HaH, Dhofar black market has been created which is the foundational basis of hundreds of important scientific papers and discoveries that have been published over the years in our Meteoritics and Planetary Science journal. This alleged NYT black market has also been one of the most generous sources of scientifically important Lunar and Martian material - not to mention a key contributor of an abundance of new achondrites.
Let me say this first - I understand the reason for establishing a scientist only Antarctic white market whose specimens are available only to researchers and not to collectors - it was done in order to try to prevent any possible profit motivation from becoming a basis for private Antarctic retrieval efforts. Taking this approach makes sure that no Antarctic meteorite is ever overlooked by a scientist or is ever mistakenly dispossessed by the scientific community.
But to me this approach can only be successful in Antarctica - and nowhere else in the world - because that is the only place on the planet that there are not any native people to retrieve the stones when the scientists are gone.
No ice people are shadowing the Antarctic scientific meteorite hunters as Mexican bandits did when Nininger made his first trip to Mexico City - or as desert nomads did when the Sahara meteorite search teams began their expeditions. Eventually, as we have already seen - the people living in a certain place will figure out the value of the meteorites - and they will soon become the most effective local hunters - and then the trading will begin - and that is the nature of all scientifically collectable things. It is the very same green market recovery process that Nininger, Monnig, and others established years ago by educating the Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas farmers to look out for meteorites when plowing their fields.
The African desert market is not a black market - it is a tan market - it is the tan market created by the local native people who live in their various desert countries who have built a retrieval and marketing pipeline of meteorites for sale to the world marketplace - a market which is inhabited both by collectors and scientists. The reason for the NWA designation in the first place was because desert nomad hunters do not obtain GPS readings for rocks picked up in borderless deserts. This is similar to the naming and numbering system given by scientists to Antarctic stones on large ice plains. The Meteoritical Society has solved this problem already with our various naming conventions - and we all have agreed that these stones are not part of a black market just because of their required use of a simple number designation.
Can we be certain that a stone was not picked up by a nomad who is a part of a criminal organization and that the subsequent proceeds of the fund’s sale are not funding criminal activities? No we can’t - unless we happen to be citizens of that country and know the custody chains of the upstream native dealers. But the same can be said for many items that are exported from a different country - clothes potentially made in a child labor factory, bananas grown on plantation with hidden cocaine production, etc. Our responsibility as IMCA members is to qualify our local dealers and to understand their sources. Based on the people who we are working with today in the tan market - we are doing much more than the general public understands in order to prevent unethical trade.
In addition, our members have aggressively become the meteorite and tektite watchdogs of eBay - just look at the archives of actions our members have taken over the years to prevent fraud and abuse on that online auction site. We know the credibility of eBay impacts the credibility of our association whether we like it or not.
The NYT reporter did not interview anyone from Egypt to actually get the facts or to obtain a clarification of the Egyptian export law - to my knowledge only Egyptian artifacts are banned from export without a permit from that country - and meteorites do not currently fall under the artifact definition - if someone has a reference to share that states otherwise please point me to the source. I have not been able to find it.
The article also seems imply that selling Gemel Kamil meteorites on eBay represents a huge injustice against Egypt - not based on direct complaints of looting from the Egyptians themselves - but seemingly from geologists in general. The article also seems to condemn ALL meteorite sales with this potentially out of context quote:
“It’s a black market, said Ralph P. Harvey, a geologist at Case Western Reserve University who directs the federal search for meteorites in Antarctica. It’s as organized as any drug trade and just as illegal.”
All of us are aware - both as scientists and collectors - that current meteorite retrieval and export laws by country are widely misunderstood, often misquoted, and difficult to reference. Many of the wishful interpretations of various current mining and heritage laws as applied to meteorites have never actually been tested in court.
(For a detailed discussion of the state of meteorite ownership and export laws see this page: http://www.meteoritecollector.org/exportlaws.html - the paper by Douglas Schmitt is especially good for understanding these complex issues - especially in relationship to the UNESCO Cultural Property Convention and the ways various countries have applied it to their own meteorite exporting and permitting rules.)
However, the laws that we do clearly understand as IMCA members - the ones that are backed up with actual meteorite language and forms - we follow without question - even in the cases where we may see the negative impact of those laws on our recovery efforts. Canada and Australia are good examples of places where our members routinely set excellent examples of regulatory compliance. We all strive to do the same in other countries - even those NWA countries with less than clear laws and regulations. Based on the repeated discussions of this issue in this and other lists - we have all become hyper-careful as dealers, and collectors, and scientists.
To counteract these black market accusations about collectors in general and the IMCA in particular - I would suggest that we all as a collective membership work out a way that we can submit our own respective country laws, procedures, and forms documents and/or links for eventual posting in a to-be-determined area on our website for members and the general public to obtain meteorite legal references. The IMCA should strive to be one of the primary trusted sources for this type of information - and it also would bolster our credibility as an advocate against the types of potential abuses referenced in today’s New York Times article.
I am disappointed in this negative publicity - but as a group I believe we can learn and improve from the challenge it presents...
December 10, 2010 - Ten Basic Principles
(This is a copy of a petition letter co-signed by Russ Finney and sent by a large group of members of the Meteoritical Society to the leadership of the organization)
Ten Basic Principals
To Improve International Recovery, Access, Exchange, Curation and Trade of Meteorites
As a group of members of the Meteoritical Society and the international meteoritic community, we are respectfully taking the liberty of requesting the Meteoritical Society’s assistance in a matter that has generated serious concern among researchers, curators, and private and institutional parties alike.
Recent developments with respect to national export and ownership restrictions regarding meteorites in various countries have hindered the free access and exchange of meteoritic material – both for scientific research and for public/private outreach.
The Meteoritical Society’s commitment to “promote research and education in planetary science with emphasis on studies of meteorites and other extraterrestrial materials”has without any doubt been the reason so many in the international meteorite community have become members. Despite this published mission, a recent trend has emerged in some statements of the Society and of its representatives that supports the confinement of access, ownership and exchange of meteoritic material. The latter quite often is a crucial precondition for their study, and we are concerned that the goals of the Society are being compromised.
The perception of Meteoritical Society as an advocate of prohibitive developments has potential consequences of which we hope the Society is aware. The achievement of many Society members in the field – specifically meteorite recoveries and subsequent provisions to institutional researchers – is not currently being honored. Further, and more importantly, the inference that the Society is actively promoting the prohibition of free trade and exchange of meteoritic material will most certainly lead to fewer and less intensive efforts around actual meteorite recoveries.
The dramatic increase in recoveries during recent times has no doubt been fueled in large part by initiatives of the private community. This in mind we are also concerned that the positions recently taken by MetSoc has a harmful effect on the Society’s funding by repelling these potential members. Recently the members learned that the Meteoritical Society is considering the addition of an Ethic’s guideline of the Meteoritical Society. This is a step we, the signing members of this petition, wholeheartedly support. However, it appears to us that the current position of the Meteoritical Society with respect to these guidelines is more likely to further impede future recovery of and access to meteoritic material – both for institutional and private research and curation.
One particularly troubling issue is the aim of the Ethic’s Working Group to define meteorites as “cultural property”. This concept would include any future meteorite falls and finds under a plethora of national ownership and export embargos which were originally designed to control the possession of genuine artifacts of cultural heritage. If more countries are to follow this conception, the distribution and exchange of meteorites among international researchers and public/private collections, particularly of recent falls, will decrease dramatically – with disastrous consequences for future research and the diversity of public and private collections. Worst of all is the inescapable prediction that recovery rates will certainly decline under this condition.
We’d like to point out that, according to the UNESCO definition, meteorites are not cultural property, with only a very few exceptions. According to the more detailed UNIDROIT annex, which also deals with minerals and objects of paleontological interest, meteorites can not at all be cultural objects by definition. Both definitions neither include natural rocks nor meteorites. To the contrary, meteorites can only become a cultural object after their integration in a rare (UNIDRIOT Annex) or scientific (Hague Convention: chapter I, art. 1a) collection.
In fact, meteorites much better fit the terms of the “Outer Space Treaty of 1967”. In this understanding they can not be subject to a national appropriation a priori.
This in mind, we’d kindly ask the Ethic’s Working Group to prevent harm and reconsider their characterization of meteorites as cultural property.
Rather than increasing restrictions, we are convinced the original goal of the Society is more effectively reached by encouraging the recovery of meteorites, by facilitating international exchange and trade of meteoritic material and by educating meteorite dealers and finders in underdeveloped countries – and by knowledge and financial transfer to the scientific institutions of these countries.
In order to improve the conditions for international recovery, access, exchange, curation and trade of Meteorites, we kindly request the Meteoritical Society to consider the following ten recommendations submitted by this group of its members:
Meteorites are extraterrestrial material that has reached the Earth’s surface. The extraterrestrial origin of each sample has to be verified to meet the meteorite definition. The premises of cultural objects are religious or secular grounds (UNIDROIT: chapter I, art. 2). Culture is the whole complex, which characterize a society or social group (Declaration of Mondiacult, UNESCO, Mexico City, 1982, confirmed in Stockholm 1998).
1. Encourage meteorite recovery
Boosting the recovery of meteorites should be achieved by encouraging field work, including those of privately funded initiatives. Private meteorite enthusiasts and commercial dealers, particularly in the countries of northern Africa – where most undocumented finds originate – should be educated to secure full documentation of each single meteorite find according to Nomenclature Committee protocol.
2. Educate local finders
The Endowment fund of the Meteoritical Society should be used to educate local finders, particularly from these African countries. Basic (and, eventually, advanced) requirements regarding the documentation of meteorite finds should be translated into the local languages. Necessary hardware, such as GPS and digital cameras, might be exchanged for commitments to follow the requirements. Privately funded programs with this aim should be encouraged.
3. Support diligent conservation
The Society should develop and issue a set of standards for the diligent curation, documentation, accessibility and succession of meteorite collections.
4. Strengthen meteorite ownership
The preservation and promotion of both public and private meteorite collections that are managed according to its collection standards should be a prior aim of the Society. Thus an affirmation from the Society on the important role of private and public outreach collections is necessary – one that also addresses the important aspects of legal ownership.
5. Transfer knowledge to developing countries
International scientists should be encouraged to offer knowledge, lab capacity and general cooperation to local scientists, with the goal to enable them to meet the Meteorite Nomenclature Committee’s requirements for meteorite acceptance, including field documentation, classification and curation. The country supported should in turn offer a fair share of material recovered on joint field expeditions.
6. Secure research material for the country of origin
Institutes capable of meteorite classification will investigate each single meteorite which is being submitted under the premises of the Meteorite Nomenclature committee guideline. The submission of type material of 20% of the total mass or 20 g, whichever is the lesser amount, is considered sufficient. This type material will be deposited at well-curated meteorite collections with a long-standing commitment in the country where the meteorite was discovered, provided that the respective country concerned has determined an institute for this purpose. If the respective country is not capable of conducting the analysis and classification of (all of) these meteorites, then additional material in the requisite amount will be submitted to institutions outside the country. Thereafter, unrestricted exchange and trade should be encouraged for the remaining percentage of any given meteorite.
7. Enhance interdisciplinary cooperation
Promote close cooperation among interdisciplinary sciences: glaciology, climatology, petrology/geology, archaeology, history, chemistry and biochemistry, etc.
8. Promote institutional and private cooperation
Private recovery efforts have proven to be the most effective meteorite programs – not only for fresh falls in recent times, but also for meteorite recoveries in desert areas. The Meteoritical Society should work on a guideline for the active incorporation of these activities into national and institutional meteorite recovery efforts.
9. Incorporate co-authorship for providers/donators of meteorites
The condition sine qua non for any research on a given specimen is the previous search, discovery and submission of type material. For most meteorites, apart from Antarctica, this is accomplished by private enthusiasts. Their achievements should be accordingly acknowledged. The individual or entity that provides or donates research material – and documentation regarding the find or fall of a meteorite (and its subsequent recovery in event of the latter) – should be mentioned as co-author in publications covering that material.
10. Allow Member Participation
Each commitment proposal involving the Meteoritical Society’s work or that of its members (such as By-laws, Guidelines, Codes, etc) will be presented in the newsletter at least six months prior to approval by the Board. Substantial objections by its members will be acknowledged.
We thank the President and the Councilors for considering our petition and kindly request to publish it as open letter in the forthcoming METEORITICS & PLANETARY SCIENCE issue.