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Rubles from heaven: Russians scoop up meteorite chunks for sale

February 19, 2013|By Sergei Loiko

MOSCOW -- It shattered windows and injured thousands, but to plenty of people in the central Russian region of Chelyabinsk, the powerful meteorite explosion that rocked the area last week was more than a disaster.

It was a cash cow.

As service workers and volunteers continue to work around the clock to fix thousands of windows shattered by the shock waves from the explosion, many of their friends and neighbors are taking time off from work and school to look for parts of the meteorite that are believed to be scattered all over the region.

Some are doing it out of curiosity but many more have a mercantile motive, which explains the appearance of hundreds of offers to sell Chelyabinsk meteorites on the Internet since Friday.

They're calling it the meteorite rush.

Prices asked for purported pieces of the alien visitor range from $20 to $30,000.

PHOTOS: Meteor over Russia's Ural Mountains

“For sale: a piece of meteorite. Cures cancer, AIDS and prostate. Improves academic performance at school, “ reads one ad, which was posted under the name Yevgeny and is perhaps overreaching a bit. He is asking $10,000 for his space rock, without specifying its size.

“Improves male potency, reduces weight. Price by agreement. Exchange for a car or real estate a possibility,” says another ad.

A black porous stone as big as a man’s palm was put up for sale on EBay, with bidding going up to $4,100 by Tuesday morning, when 84 bids had been made.

Maxim, a University student from the town of Yemanzhelinsk, 30 miles south of Chelyabinsk, who for privacy reasons didn’t want his last name used, claims to have collected several dozen pieces of what he believes to be meteorite particles. He said he decided to keep the biggest, weighing 18 grams, and gave a dozen of the smallest ones to a visiting scientist. Now he is selling about seven pieces, at roughly six grams each, via the Internet.

“When the explosion happened [Friday] morning I was driving outside my town through a snow-covered field and had to stop my car and get out, scared as hell, because it looked for a moment as if the sun fell down on the Earth,” he said in a phone interview. “And then I heard several loud explosions and felt a gust of very strong wind that nearly pushed me off my feet as my parked car rattled.”

Then, he said, “I heard hissing sounds all around me in the field and noticed tiny white tongues of steam rising from the snow all over the field. Not far from where I stood, I found several pieces of black rock in the snow that looked like porous coal. They were still hot.”

Maxim said he figured out it was a meteorite and gathered as many pieces as he could. He sold the first one Monday. A piece that weighted three grams went for the equivalent of $150. After he posted the ad he got dozens of calls, including queries from a potential buyer in Germany and one from a U.S. museum. They were ready to buy the smallest pieces of his collection for $100 each, he said.

Maxim said all the pieces had magnetic qualities and turned to be very hard when he tried to file one of them. He was willing to sell the six-gram meteorites for the equivalent of $200 apiece.

On Tuesday afternoon he was going out to the “treasure field” again to look for new finds, he said.

Some Chelyabinsk residents have begun to collect pieces of crushed glass to give to friends and relatives in the rest of the country as souvenirs, according to Oksana Mikhayleva, editor in chief of the radio station Echo of Chelyabinsk.

“One enterprising man is now offering what he calls the `Apocalypse tour' around Chebarkul Lake for $170,” Mikhayleva said in a phone interview. “The tour, of course, ends at a place where the biggest chunk of the meteor is believed to have crashed through the ice of the lake after the blast.”

Chelyabinsk police take a somewhat dim view of the craze.

“Some people can be easily confused and compelled to buy something they later will be sorry for, as some other people are taking advantage of the situation," police spokeswoman Anzhelika Chirkova said in a phone interview. She suggested the shocking possibility that some of the entrepreneurs might be "ready to make money selling something which has nothing to with the real meteorite.”

“But even if they are selling the real stuff," she added, "no one knows whether it can pose a health hazard until examined by experts.”

Police already visited one of the Internet meteorite sellers and confiscated a dozen pieces of black substance they will present to experts for study, Chirkova said.

Most of the meteorites offered for sale in the Chelyabinsk region will probably be fakes, said Viktor Gorokhvsky, a member of the Russian Academy of Sciences meteorite committee.

“They can be selling anything now from bricks to stones, but we haven’t officially certified a single Chelyabinsk meteorite yet,” Gorokhvsky, a professor at Yekaterinburg Federal Urals University, said in a phone interview.

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sergei.loiko@latimes.com 

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