For sale: A smuggled fragment of the history of the universe

Collector reveals how Chelyabinsk meteorite got from deep space to Edinburgh auction room

A fragment of the meteor that injured more than 1,500 people when it exploded over a Russian town earlier this year is to go on sale in Edinburgh next week after it was smuggled out of the country by a British collector.

Dramatic footage of the Chelyabinsk meteor in February showed a fireball tearing across the sky at 41,000mph. The chunk of space rock, about 50 feet in diameter and weighing 10,000 tons, exploded into fragments as it hit the earth’s atmosphere. The shock wave was so powerful that it travelled around the earth twice, and residents of the central Russian region were left cowering as windows were shattered and buildings rocked.

In the aftermath, thousands of Russians combed the countryside hoping to find pieces of meteorite, and 50 fragments found their way to Robert Elliot in Milton of Bagonie, a village in Fife. The 52-year-old, described as the “Indiana Jones of the meteorite world” for his dedication to seeking prized finds from across the globe, managed to sneak the valuable pieces past strict Russian customs officials.

“The government was threatening all of the locals there, saying if you sell these overseas you’re going to be in big trouble,” he said. “What my contact did was take 60 pieces of meteorite and mix them up with electronic components. There were some old vacuum tubes in there, the old valves that used to glow in the back of radio sets.”

Some fifty of the pieces made it out. The fragment up for auction on Tuesday is expected to fetch £400, and the other 90 lots from Mr Elliot’s collection should bag him about £70,000. A previous auction brought in £200,000. A spokesman for the auctioneer, Lyon & Turnbull, said several Russian buyers had expressed an interest, so the fragment could well end up back where it was found.

Mr Elliot, a former military electronics engineer who retired 20 years ago, is used to encountering trouble out in the field. He was searching for remnants of the 1912 Holbrook meteor in the Arizona desert when a sheriff pulled a gun on him. “It’s Navajo Indian territory,” he said. “It’s illegal to hunt for Indian artefacts – you can hunt for meteorites but you can’t take any beads or arrowheads.” The sheriff thought he was there illegally, and Mr Elliot’s improvised meteorite-hunting device escalated the situation. “I use a golf club with the end cut off with a magnet glued on. As I walked towards him I lifted my golf club and rested it on my shoulder, and he thought I was going for him.”

The collector has even engaged in disputes closer to home. He posted a £20,000 reward in the local paper after a fireball was spotted in Carlow, Ireland. “I got in all sorts of trouble with the media in Ireland because they were protesting that I’d nicked their Irish meteorite. As I said, there was nothing Irish about it. It came from space.”

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (B2B) - Romford - £40,000 + car

£35000 - £40000 per annum + car and benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager...

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000 ...

Ashdown Group: Data Scientist - London - £50,000 + bonus

£35000 - £50000 per annum + generous bonus: Ashdown Group: Business Analytics ...

Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power