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NWAs: Second Class Meteorites?

By Norbert Classen, May 2003

On the collector's market, the prices of most Northwest African meteorites are still dropping while witnessed falls and historic specimens are getting more expensive. Are NWA meteorites less valuable, or is it a subliminal form of chauvinism making some people treat them like second class meteorites?

The NWA Dilemma

In the late 1990s, an increasing number of meteorites from the hot deserts of northwest Africa hit the market, most of them having been recovered by so-called "nomads", i.e. by native people from Morocco and Western Sahara. After having acquired several meteorites at the local markets, the French fossil hunters, Bruno Fectay and Carine Bidaut, started to educate their local team not only to look for fossils, but also for meteorites - with great success. Aoufous, Agoult, Igdi, Ouzina, Smara, and Zegdou are some of the names that tell a story of fame - fame that should soon be attacked by envious competitors. Bruno and Carine were accused of having faked the strewn field data of some of their finds, and, soon, the reliability of French and Moroccan meteorite dealers was generally put into question by some narrow-minded hunters and dealers, fearing that the reasonably priced Moroccan meteorites might ruin their own markets.

Being responsible for the approval of new meteorites and meteorite names, the Nomenclature Committee of the Meteoritical Society reacted promptly, but maybe not wisely: "Many meteorites lacking first-hand documentation of the find location are being sold by Moroccan rock and mineral dealers, and by people from other countries who have collected material in Morocco. These meteorites are all sold as Moroccan finds, but there are plausible reports that some were actually collected in Algeria or Western Sahara. The reliability of locality information associated with these meteorites is difficult to assess because of the anonymity of all of the finders and most of the original sellers. All such meteorites will henceforth be numbered in a Northwest Africa (NWA) series." (Grossman, J.: The Meteoritical Bulletin, No. 84, August 2000)

Subsequently, every northwest African meteorite - no matter if it was purchased or found, well-documented or not - has been published as and treated like an anonymous number. More recently, in the Meteoritical Bulletin, No. 86, even some meteorite finds from the Dar al Gani region, Libya, have been subjected to this questionable policy - obviously ignoring that Libya isn't a northwest African country at all. What was originally intended as a well-meant way to master the problems arising from the Moroccan gold rush has turned into a rigid routine, an act of bureaucratic indifference, stigmatizing each and every NWA meteorite with a number that implicitly states: "You can not rely on the locality information associated with this meteorite." Yet, more importantly, it also caries the subliminal and discriminating message: "You can not rely on Moroccan dealers, and the people who search or buy meteorites in Morocco." >> top...

The Plain Truth about the Moroccan Gold Rush

It is certainly true that most Moroccan dealers are reluctant to reveal the origins of their meteorites - partially, because they want to protect their sources, but mostly because they don't know it themselves. Morocco is a poor country, and the Moroccan people are used to take every chance. As soon as they realized that there is an emerging market for black stones from the desert they simply went for it, unwittingly disregarding the need of a proper documentation of each and every find. Even if they had been aware of that scientifically important prerequisite, most of them would not have been able to meet it. The average Moroccan simply doesn't have the funds to afford a camera, and an expensive GPS unit.

It would have been a partial solution if more Moroccan and foreign meteorite dealers had adopted to the strategy that Bruno and Carine established earlier - a strategy involving the education and the equipment of the local hunting teams, and, of course, a fair share of the profits resulting from the sales of their finds. However, this unique opportunity has been squandered by the Meteoritical Society and its short-sighted NWA policy. Since all meteorites from Morocco and the northwest African countries are treated the same, there is no advantage whatsoever for the Moroccan people in documenting their finds or revealing their sources. On the contrary, the NWA policy promoted the uncontrollable flood of undocumented meteorites that the Meteoritical Society tried to dam up. >> top...

The Impact on the Collector's Market

As a result, the prices of most NWA desert meteorites dropped immensely. Carbonaceous chondrites, e.g. members of the CK or CR group, that have been sold at $200/g to $400/g a year ago are now being sold dirt-cheap at about $25/g or even less. Fresh ordinary chondrites are being sold out by the pound at about $0.20/g, and even howardites, eucrites, ureilites, and other rare achondrites are at an all-time low. Now, this sounds like a perfect buyer's market, doesn't it? In fact, it does, and many collectors are taking advantage of the situation by building a great collection for peanuts. Especially the newcomers are enjoying the opportunity to get a nice selection at affordable prices.

However, that's just one side of the medal. Many of the long-time collectors are feeling unsafe, especially those who invested a lot of money into rare desert meteorites prior to the times of the NWA gold rush. A few of them are even reacting like a bunch of stockholders after a Black Friday. Personally, I know of several collectors who stopped buying at all. Others just stopped acquiring desert meteorites, and started to focus on witnessed falls or "special pedigree specimens", such as historic meteorites, accompanied by proper documentation - German, French, or American falls and finds. Of course, this change of direction had its impact on the balance of supply and demand, forcing the prices of the NWA meteorites to go down while the pedigree specimens and meteorites of noble descent got more expensive.

Now, and I always thought that it is the extraterrestrial origin that gives a meteorite its "pedigree", and not the place or country where it accidentally fell. Does a Martian meteorite automatically become an "American Martian" when it is found on US territory, or does it stay a Martian meteorite that accidentally fell in America? What's wrong with a Martian that was found in Morocco? Is it inferior because of its outer black crust, or because it is from Africa, lacking a so-called "first-hand documentation of the find location"? Certainly not. It is high time to become aware of this subliminal form of chauvinism, and to stop the discrimination of NWA meteorites, hunters, and dealers. For my part, I will keep on welcoming new rare types from the northwest African deserts. The gold rush will soon be over, but until then, it is a buyer's market. There will be no second Morocco, take my word. >> top...

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