" A Brief History of the Saharan Gold Rush of Meteorites "
The term "Saharan Gold Rush" (or "Saharan Rush" or "NWA Gold Rush") is generally used to describe a period of time from the mid 1990's to the first few years of the 21st century. It was a period that spanned about 10 years and is now widely considered to be concluded. During this period, a vast flood of meteorites began to pour out of the Saharan desert through Morocco into the hands of European and Western dealers. Previously, meteorites were much more scarce and types like howardites were considered to be rare exotics beyond the reach of many private collectors. The Saharan Gold Rush flooded the marketplace with numerous rare types and thousands of unclassified meteorites of all descriptions. The sudden influx of new material upset the balance between the old-guard dealers, well-heeled collectors, and museums. Suddenly, a collector operating on a small budget could afford to buy such luxuries as howardites, carbonaceous chondrites, and eventually planetaries. Museums and institutions opened their cabinets and traded pieces of rare historical falls to acquire the new exotics from the hot deserts of Northwest Africa.
During all of this sudden upset and activity amongst meteorite collectors and dealers, the internet rose to prominence and further altered the landscape of the marketplace. The widening availability of the internet to distant locales like Morocco, opened up direct lines of communication between the Moroccan meteorite sources and the buyers all across the planet. Meteorites with NWA numbers began to out-number meteorites with names, and collectors could swell their cabinets by patrolling eBay for the latest new offerings from the deserts. The Saharan Gold Rush ultimately resulted in total upheaval of the global meteorite market and it was inarguably a bounty of material for collectors, dealers and institutions alike. We will now examine the timeline and key events of this period and how it has effected the marketplace of today and the future.
It is hard to pin down an exact time and place that triggered the Saharan Rush. We do know that the first meteorites to be discovered in the Sahara were found by local tribesmen and desert nomads. These people were often of Arabic, Moroccan, Berber, Bedouin, or Tuareg descent and some of them are intimately familiar with the vast deserts of Northwest Africa that are collectively called the Saharan Desert. Technically speaking, the Saharan desert stretches across the boundaries of several nations, including Morocco, Algeria, Mauritania, Niger, Mali, Sudan, Libya and Egypt. The majority of meteorites coming out of the deserts pass through Morocco and end up with the designation of "NWA" or "unclassified NWA" by the Nomenclature Committee (NonCom) of the Meteoritical Society. This formal nomenclature is widely used in the world of private collectors and dealers, and these meteorites are generally referred to as "NWA" regardless of where they originated in the Sahara.
Western and European fossil hunters had a long presence in Morocco and Mauritania because this same geographic area also holds rich deposits of fossils, minerals, and prehistoric human artifacts. When the nomads began bringing back unusual black rocks from the open desert, some of the rock and fossil dealers took notice. Word soon spread across the region that foreign dealers would pay the "handsome sum" of pennies or nickels per gram for these heavy, black rocks. The nomads and desert dwellers then started to actively look for these stones and they discovered that the remote desert was literally sprinkled with distinctive and potentially-valuable meteorites. Because the Saharan desert climate is ideal for preserving meteorites, there were tens of thousands of years worth of fallen meteorites laying exposed in the sand dunes and on the desert pavement. As mineral, fossil, and artifact stocks began to dwindle, profit-minded dealers began to focus on meteorite recovery, and they informed their local partners about identifying meteorites and telling them apart from terrestrial material. This resulted in a literal flood of new meteorites emerging from the Sahara and the nomads brought them out by the sack and camel-load. The bounty included hundreds of common chondrites and dozens of new examples of rare types, including Lunar and Martian meteorites.
Laboratories and institutions began receiving increasing numbers of requests for analysis on new Saharan material. Museum curators were bombarded with trade requests, offering to exchange the new desert exotics for historical meteorite specimens. The very first meteorite dealers and wholesalers now had a golden opportunity to make a handsome profit and to grow their own collections for pennies on the dollar. Unclassified meteorites could be purchased directly from Moroccan traders for very low prices, and once formally analyzed in the West, these same meteorites would fetch a considerable profit on the retail collector market. The smell of money began to waft across the desert dunes, and the Saharan Gold Rush started in earnest.
In order to avoid paying full retail price on these new desert meteorites, dealers and collectors had to deal directly with their Moroccan counterparts. The local Moroccans would receive the new meteorites from their partners who routinely combed the remote areas of the desert during their travels. Much of this trading activity centered around the Moroccan city of Erfoud, not far from the Algerian border. These meteorites would then be made available, at a mark-up, from the wholesalers in local markets and homes in places like Erfoud and Rissani.
At first, the internet was not widely available in Morocco or the Sahara, so word of these offerings did not spread widely to the global marketplace. The only Moroccans with access to the internet during the beginnings of the Gold Rush were the wealthy-individuals or city dwellers, so this limited the locals' ability to market goods to their full potential. Banking, shipping, and financial services in Morocco (and across the Sahara) were not closely tied to foreign services during the early stages of the Rush, so these limitations also helped keep the meteorite trading concentrated in a hands of a few foreign dealers and well-connected local wholesalers. PayPal was not accepted in Morocco (and still is not), USPS did not have parcel service to Morocco, and the only expedient way to transfer funds between a foreign buyer and a Moroccan seller was via direct bank to bank wire-transfer. Indeed, many of these limitations are still in place and are only recently beginning to be lifted. All of these factors tilted the playing field of the meteorite marketplace to the foreign dealers who had ready access to an audience of clients and potential buyers.
The Western and European dealers did not have direct access to the remote areas of the desert where the meteorites were found, and the Moroccans did not have easy access to the global marketplace of buyers. So an alliance of necessity was formed, and it was a sometimes contentious one, between the foreign dealers and the local Moroccan traders. This status-quo was maintained, in part by necessity and in part by dealer design, throughout the majority of the Saharan Rush, and the eventual shattering of this status-quo would signal the beginning of the end for the flood of cheap, new meteorites from the deserts.
- The Peak
As the flow of meteorites grew into the many hundreds, the scientific establishment and ambitious private individuals began to take notice of the source of these new meteorites. Expeditions were launched by universities, governments, and private hunters to seek out meteorites in the remote deserts, bypassing the nomadic middlemen and preserving the original find locations for science (and increasing potential profits for private hunters). The deserts of Libya and Oman began to open up and yield fantastic new finds of rare meteorite types, including many planetaries and Vestans. Private individuals who had the money and freedom to travel, could visit the desert as tourists and mount their own expeditions to find meteorites, often with the help of local guides or contacts. The private hunters and official expeditions, could accurately log the original find locations, helping to preserve valuable scientific data that was often lost by native finders who did not have GPS equipment or training.
Unfortunately, some private dealers were more concerned with preserving their monopoly over a new find location, so they would not accurately report the coordinates of the finds, resulting in false data being perpetuated into scientific literature and research. As a result of this unethical practice, the official governing body of meteorite nomenclature treats all NWA meteorites with a measure of suspicion when it comes to the stated find locations and circumstances. This is why the vast majority of Saharan meteorites receive a NWA catalogue number and not a proper place name. Obvious examples of this practice are the meteorites with the "Sahara" name and catalogue numbers which have dubious find data. It was because of this practice, in part, that museums and institutions began to turn their collective noses up at NWA material. These exotic new meteorites had begun to flood the market to such an extent, that certain rare types were no longer considered "rare" and the exact point of origin of these meteorites was frequently uncertain. Museums stopped trading rare material with solid provenance for Saharan material of nebulous origins (pun intended). The closing of the museum cabinets and institution collections to NWA material signaled the end of the first phase of the Saharan Rush. Even though many institutions and curators eschewed Saharan material, private collectors eagerly embraced these new meteorites and were willing to pay premium prices for the same specimens the institutions rejected. This would signal the coming peak period of NWA collecting.
The initial excitement and confusion finally wore off, and now the meteorite dealers found themselves with swollen coffers filled with all sorts of valuable meteorites that institutions were no longer clamoring over. For the average "end collector", the floodgates opened wide. The meteorite market before the Rush was a place of paper catalogues, snail mail purchases, and long-distance telephone calls. Offers often circulated by word of mouth and opportunities for collectors were limited. Had the Saharan Gold Rush happened several years earlier than it did, it's impact would not have been as widespread or deeply felt. The marketplace for collectibles and second-hand goods was changing independently of the meteorite world, and the rise of the internet and eBay changed the rules of the game as much as the new meteorites changed the supply situation. With the growing dominance of eBay, any person with a checking account could become a prolific trader and the kitchen-table meteorite dealer was born. A quick search of eBay yielded several sellers offering dozens of meteorites each, in a wide variety of sizes and types. The micromount became a staple of the market, and buyers were feverish over thumbnail-sized meteorite samples and rare types were often traded as specks or crumbs. Five dollars could buy a piece of Vesta and lunar meteorites appeared in the most budget-limited collections.
As time progressed, the number of eBay sellers offering meteorites exploded. Eventually, hundreds of sellers across the world were selling thousands of meteorites and it became possible for collectors to amass a previously unheard-of selection of rare falls and exotic types. Around this time, some dealers had so many unclassified meteorites waiting for attention, that they began selling them in bulk lots of one kilogram or larger. End collectors could now purchase meteorites by the pound in the same way one might purchase rice or coffee. The majority of these bulk meteorites were stony, unclassified types that were weathered and covered in caliche. There were some diamonds hiding in the rough, and some rare types and valuable planetaries managed to slip out from dealer collections and into the hands of lucky, unsuspecting buyers. This happened so often that it garnered it's own term, "winning the Moroccan lottery". Email lists and message boards were brimming with stories about buyers who bought bulk lots of unclassifieds and then had some of those cheap meteorites analyzed to discover rare types worth much more than what the buyer paid. Eucrites, howardites, carbonaceous types, and achondrites were popping up all over the place. Rumurutis, acapulcoites, brachinites, angrites, lodranites, and new ungrouped types came to light on a regular basis. Competition between dealers became fierce as buyers had the luxury of shopping around for "bargains" on the most rare meteorites. Prices dropped to historical lows and blue-collar Joe Q. Public could afford a drawer full of Vestans and planetaries. It was not unusual for entry-level collectors to own big 10-kilogram iron Campos and gram-sized slices of Lunars and Martians. This period was a time of plenty for buyers and dealers alike, and the flow of meteorites from the Sahara filled booths and rooms at mineral shows, to feed the ever-growing demand.
For about 4 or 5 years, this bountiful buffet of rare meteorites continued unabated, until two things changed : the Moroccans started selling more directly to end collectors, and the local finders figured out that the middlemen and dealers were making a killing on these desert rocks. The nomads who brought the meteorites out of the desert, often at great risk from dangerous areas like Algeria, wanted more fair compensation for their finds. This increased the wholesale price that the Moroccan traders in the city had to pay, and those traders increased their own prices in turn. This turn of events unfolded just a few years ago, and for veteran members of the meteorite community, this was the proverbial writing on the wall that the market was changing again and the Rush might soon become a trickle. This increase in wholesale prices also coincided with the first signs of a depleted supply from the desert. The big, obvious, and easy to find meteorites were found and sold over the years, and as time went on, fewer meteorites were coming out of the Sahara. What's more, many of the meteorites coming out in the later stages of the Rush were of lower quality and more weathered than previous finds. Only the occasional fresh fall broke up the parade of sandblasted unclassified chondrites, infusing the market with freshly crusted stones from falls like Oum Dreyga, Bassikounou, Chergach, and more recently Tamdakht.
- Plateau and Decline
In time, the availability of the internet in Morocco became more widespread. Where it was once the domain of the wealthy, universities and the occasional cafe, now it is not uncommon to see laptop computers and internet-capable cell phones in Morocco. FedEx planes make regular trips to Morocco, picking up and dropping off goods that are purchased over the internet or destined for sale on the world wide web. Previously, one had to work over a long period of time to cultivate connections in Morocco to purchase meteorites. With the spread of the internet came social networking, and it became more common to see Moroccan dealers with Facebook profiles offering meteorites directly to the public at large. The "good old boy networks" were finally broken and any person with a little bit of cash could buy the same meteorites the big dealers buy, and from the same wholesale sources that the big boys purchase from.
By this time, buying wholesale did not have the same meaning it did previously. The range between wholesale and retail pricing began to shrink as the Moroccans started charging more money for their material to cover the increased costs of dealing with the nomads and to increase their own profits as new retailers in a market that had previously limited them to wholesale status. The first obvious signs of this change began to be recognized at the big annual meteorite shows in Tuscon, Ensisheim, and Denver. Where once there were numerous wholesalers offering big crates of unclassified meteorites for pennies per gram, the tables began to dry up and the offerings became fewer and more expensive. Savvy dealers with investment capital recognized what was happening and they started buying up large quantities of meteorites before the prices and availability could deteriorate any further. This stockpiling of meteorites bordered on hoarding in some cases, and it put a further strain on the decreasing supply of desert finds. People from all parts of the meteorite world, dealers and collectors, began to wonder aloud how much longer the Gold Rush could continue.
For the first time since the beginnings of the flood, buyers started to realize that they were in the midst of a temporary period of plenty that could end soon. For the author, the first personal signs of market decline was when my wholesale source reported that new desert meteorites at the Tucson 2008 show were priced at the highest levels yet, the quality of offerings was steadily declining, and the quantity of material was a fraction of what it was in previous years. For the first time, I began to pay more than $50 per kilogram for weathered, unclassified, Saharan meteorites. Those bulk "wholesale" lots did not contain nearly as many diamonds in the rough as previously, and finding a rare type started to become rare again. Stories of buyers "hitting the Moroccan lottery" began to decline and be replaced with complaints about caliche-covered stones devoid of crust and oxidized internally. Worse still, the recent fresh falls like Chergach, Bassikounou and Oum Dreyga had been largely hunted out and the strewnfields were picked clean of the freshest, nicest stones. Examples of these recent falls went from black crusted whole stones to broken fragments with obvious oxidation. The strains of increased demand were finally catching up with the supply, and the situation we currently see began to evolve.
Around the same time that the Saharan Rush was in steady decline, several spectacular falls grabbed the public eye and put the focus of the mass media squarely on meteorites. In addition to the usual news outlets (which frequently botched their meteorite coverage with factual errors and misinformation), blogs, websites, message boards, and YouTube were abuzz with excitement surrounding the falls of Buzzard Coulee, Almahata Sitta, Ash Creek, and Lorton. These falls generated great publicity with bolide videos, cell phone photos, hunting stories and front-page news. Buzzard Coulee's spectacular fireball lit up the night sky while captured on film. Ash Creek produced the first "meteorite finding dog". Almahata Sitta was discovered in space and it's fall site accurately predicted. The Lorton meteorite fall punched a hole in the roof of a dentist's office and a legal battle ensued over ownership. And recently, school kids found meteorites on the playground from the Mifflin fall.
For the first time, new meteorite falls generated excitement outside of the usual collector circles and energized the lay public about the once-esoteric subject of meteorites. Cable television viewers were treated to the very first program dedicated solely to hunting space rocks, and "meteorite" suddenly became a household word. All of this attention increased demand even further and the shortage of supply become impossible to ignore. When wholesale stocks of desert meteorites started to run low, some of the dealers who had been hoarding large quantities of specimens opened their vaults and released huge amounts of material onto the market in an effort to feed the demand and make a handsome profit from their investments. This alleviated the supply shortage somewhat, but ultimately it would only delay the inevitable.
So where are we today in relation to the Gold Rush? Arguably, the Gold Rush is over, although we are still enjoying some of the fruits of that period. Compared to the time before the Rush, collectors still have a large selection of rare types to choose from, at prices that are considerably lower than the pre-internet days. A new collector with an eBay account can amass an impressive type collection or fall collection in a fraction of the time it would have taken in the days of snail mail and money orders.
As the first decade of the 21st century comes to a close, the selection and overall availability of specimens has gone into a slow decline. eBay is no longer the sole dominate market for meteorites and many dealers have migrated away from the deafening roar of eBay to find quieter and more profitable pastures elsewhere on the web. Many dealers now have ecommerce websites with built-in checkout functions, so meteorites can be purchased instantly on impulse, and are not subject to the fickle nature of eBay or auction bidders. Some dealers also operate on Facebook, using their personal profiles or business pages to announce new specimens and makes offers. With the landscape of the market now spread out over a wider area, buyers must do a little more searching to get the big picture of specimen availability. Collectors who rely solely on eBay (or avoid it entirely) are only getting a partial picture of the meteorite market. This proliferation of new dealers and new avenues of sale was made possible, in large part, by the Saharan Gold Rush.
Even though supplies are declining and prices are rising, a massive amount of material was dumped on to the marketplace during the peak period of the Rush. Metric tons of meteorites are now in private hands that were once laying undiscovered in the desert, or locked away in institutional collection cabinets. This mass injection of new material will have long term effects on the marketplace for generations to come. The world of meteorite collectors has been forever changed by the flood of NWA meteorites, and we are unlikely to see a repeat performance in the future. The world only has one region like Northwest Africa, where a fortuitous combination of geographical, legal, and climatological forces converged to create a robust private market in Morocco. Looking around the globe, there are no new Moroccos waiting in the wings, waiting to be unleash a new Gold Rush of meteorites. We have been lucky to be a part of the biggest proliferation of privately-available meteorites in history. As collectors, dealers, wholesalers, hunters and curious onlookers, we should be very grateful for our large collections of meteorites that are populated with rare types and exotic localities.