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

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

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The Independent Online

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.”