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Going, Going, Gone: A Tiny Piece of the Red Planet for Just $1,000

An auction house is moving into the 'very trendy' sale of natural history items.

November 18, 2002|Bettina Boxall | Times Staff Writer

People looking for something really different, something with that timeless, not-just-off-the-shelf quality had a place to go Sunday afternoon.

At a natural history auction at the I.M. Chait Gallery/Auctioneers, nearly 300 items were offered, including a tiny chunk of Mars, a slice of the moon, a fossil of a big fish eating a little fish 35 million years ago and a dinosaur jaw.

It was the first natural history auction for Chait, which more typically sells Asian art, but is branching into the small but growing market of ancient bones and the extraterrestrial.

"It's very trendy now," said dealer Thomas Lindgren, who noted that clients want something solid and enduring in these worrisome days of terrorist attacks.

Huge jaw bones and the like can also help fill a place up, said James Walker, one of the auction organizers. Along with casual buyers, a few museums and connoisseurs, customers include "international clients who literally have more money than sense" and 45,000-square-foot palaces to decorate, he added.

The partial slice of Mars was probably not for the palace owners. It weighs only .444 grams.

Recovered, according to the auction catalog, by "a rockhound who moonlit as an engineer with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory," it's unclear exactly where the martian meteorite was found. When the man's wife urged him to clean up the rock piles in the backyard, he took some specimens to UCLA, which in 2000 confirmed that two of them were from Mars.

The piece sold for $1,000 to an Internet bidder who was not identified.

A comparatively large slice of the moon -- 17.54 grams -- went unsold when no bid came in high enough. It had been valued at $45,000 to $60,000.

Lunar and martian meteorites, Walker said, "are some of the most exotically expensive real estate on the planet."

Only about 20 pounds of lunar meteorites have been found, and half of them are in government collections, which is why they are sold by the thin slice on the private market.

A much smaller, less expensive piece of the same lunar meteorite, recovered in the Sahara Desert in 1999 by nomadic Berbers, went for $3,500 to a unidentified resident of the Los Angeles area.

Auctioneer Izzy Chait, garbed in a Hawaiian shirt and coifed in a ponytail, said he was pleased with the bidding, which came by phone and Internet from the Middle East and Europe as well as the United States.

Los Angeles attorney James Wohl didn't have that far to go. At the auction, just 10 minutes from his house, he picked up a few things for his wife.

Along with some gems, he bought her a grapefruit-sized meteorite that slammed into Africa thousands of years ago, a fossil of an amphibian trapped in ancient mud and some prehistoric shark's teeth.

"She loves to collect," explained Wohl after placing two plain brown shopping bags of his purchases on the front seat of his car for the drive home.

He hadn't spent any more money than he could have a few streets over on Rodeo Drive, but his presents should definitely outlast the latest fashion rage.

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