Legality and Meteorite Collecting

(Note, this is an ongoing article. It will be updated from time to time as new information is discovered and incorporated. Last update : 06-08-2018)

Before I get to the meat of the issue, I want to state the following for the record : the information presented below is my based on my interpretation of the available facts. This information is not intended to be authoritative and it represents a "common sense" approach to meteorite-related legalities.

This information is provided in an attempt to dispel rumors and separate fact from conjecture. Before publishing this article to the public, I have discussed this issue with several other veteran meteorite collectors and dealers from several different countries. All of these sources are in general agreement with the viewpoints outlined below.

Meteorites and legalities has been a hot topic in the meteorite world lately. There are some misconceptions floating around that need to be addressed and I will attempt to do that here. First, let me state, I am not an attorney, nor am I a legal expert by any means. I have been active in the meteorite world since 2006 and I consider myself very well-read on all aspects of meteorites and meteoritics. While my views on legalities are not to be considered authoritative, I do speak from some measure of experience because I have extensively discussed the issues of meteorite laws with many other dealers, hunters, and collectors from around the world. One thing that every experienced meteorite collector/dealer can agree on is that the world of meteorites contains many legal grey areas and that hard information on laws pertaining to meteorites is difficult to find.

Very few countries have laws that specifically address meteorites. This is because meteorites have flown under the radar for many years and governments have not taken notice of them until recently. In the last 10 years or so, some countries have enacted new laws regarding meteorites, or they have changed how they enforced existing laws.

I will now address those individual countries who have clearly-stated and understood laws regarding meteorites :

First, there is some confusion around "Moon Rocks". Lunar meteorites found on Earth are legal to own. Lunar rocks found on the surface of the Moon and brought back to Earth by NASA astronauts are government property and are not legal for private collectors to own.

In the United States and Japan, the policy regarding meteorites is that the property owner of where the meteorite is found is the legal owner. So, if a meteorite falls on your property or is dug up from your backyard of a home that you own, then the meteorite belongs to you. If you rent from a landlord, then the meteorite belongs to your landlord. If the meteorite falls on government property, then it belongs to that government (local, state, or federal). If the meteorite falls on public property, then it is "finders keepers" and whoever legally finds it is the owner. 

Argentina. Argentina passed a law in the late 1990's (not sure of the exact date) that classifies all Argentine meteorites found in the Chaco province as cultural treasures and they are now heavily restricted for export. Argentine meteorites gathered before the law went into effect are freely traded and have no legal ramifications. Any meteorites recovered after the new law cannot be legally exported from Argentina without government approval, and the Argentine government does not give this approval easily or often. Just a few years ago, a large shipment of Campo del Cielo meteorites (tons) was seized at a port facility shortly before it was to be exported. The buyer/importer of these meteorites was an American dealer who lost his entire investment. I have been asked not to reveal this dealer's identity, so please do not ask.

In addition, the Argentine government has investigated the activities of another American dealer and threatened legal action against that dealer, although eventually the investigation was dropped. So apparently the Argentines are taking the issue seriously and you can expect to see a lot less Campo (and other Argentine meteorites) coming out of the country. Of course, Campo is one of the most common meteorites on the market, so this is not expected to adversely affect the value or availability of Campo meteorites for some time to come.

Besides Campo del Cielo, you can view any meteorite that has fallen (or was recovered) in Argentina after the new law to be illegal to possess or trade without proper permission from the Argentine government. This includes Berduc, which is often called "the forbidden meteorite" by dealers and collectors. If you see a specimen of Berduc for sale outside of Argentina, it is considered illegal by Argentina (but not by US law). To my knowledge, the Argentine government has never approved the export of a single Berduc meteorite, so all Berduc specimens in collections outside the country were exported illegally or through grey market means.

If you own a Berduc meteorite, should you be worried? Well, not really. The Argentines are not going to send a team of storm troopers to your house and extradite you to Argentina for prosecution. However, you should be aware that a Berduc meteorite is possibly illegal and you are breaking Argentine law by owning one. As far as I know, there is no American law that applies to this situation, so don't expect to get hassled by US authorities for owning one. You are safe. The fact that Berduc is illegal (outside the US) does not prevent many dealers from offering it for sale. There is a lot of grey market Berduc floating around and several major dealers in the US and around the world offer it. 

You may have heard some rumors and rumblings regarding the nation of India and Indian meteorites. I will now address that issue. First, I will emphasize, for the purposes of this article, when I say "Indian" meteorites, I am referring to meteorites from the nation of India and not meteorites connected to American Indian tribes (Meteorites found on US tribal Indian lands belong to that tribe).

India. There was a new meteorite fall in India in May of this year and it is being called "Katol". Katol has stirred up quite a bit of controversy lately. There are two opposing sides of the Katol debate. One side says that India has banned the export of meteorites (like Argentina did) and that all meteorites coming out of India are illegal, and this includes the Sulagiri fall of 2008. The other side claims that no such export ban exists and that Indian meteorites are legal. Both sides are quite adamant about their viewpoints and it has caused some animosity in recent months in the meteorite world. I will now clarify this issue - there is no Indian law regarding meteorites, period.

Those who say Katol and Sulagiri are illegal will cite a British mandate from the 1880's that states that all meteorites found in India are the property of the government and should be turned over to the Indian state museum or the British national museum. First, India is no longer a territory of the British Empire and British laws no longer apply to Indian meteorites. Secondly, there has been no Indian law enacted since then that specifically addresses meteorites. So lacking any solid evidence to the contrary, it is safe to assume that Indian meteorites are legal to own. Why some dealers and collectors continue to insist that a 130-year-old British law applies to modern Indian meteorites is a mystery to me. If anyone can find any reference to a modern Indian law that forbids meteorite export, please point me to it, because I looked long and hard for any such laws on the internet and cannot find them.

Lastly, regarding India, one can look at how the Indians are acting in regards to meteorites now and infer legality (or lack of) from that behavior. Sulagiri and Katol are readily and easily exported from India. On numerous occasions, foreign meteorite hunters have openly hunted meteorites in India and they have openly removed those meteorites from India by declaring them in customs and flying home with them. Never have the Indians attempted to seize these meteorites or hassle the exporters. If it is illegal to export Indian meteorites, the Indians are certainly not acting like it. If you own a Sulagiri or Katol specimen, my advice is to ignore the questions of legality and enjoy your meteorite.

Oman and Algeria. These are two interesting cases and I lump them together because they share some similarities. First, just like with India, there are many people who say that Algerian and Omani meteorites are illegal because their respective governments forbid the removal of meteorites and that those meteorites belong to the state. This is hard to verify because Algerian and Omani laws are not easily referenced by foreigners and copies of those same laws are impossible to find on the internet. Without direct and hard evidence of what the laws may (or may not) say, it is difficult to determine what is legal and what is not. So, let us look at how the Omani and Algerian governments act in regards to meteorites.

First, Algeria. Algeria is a place that is very hostile to outsiders and many of it's own neighbors in the region. It is a place that is torn by war and violence. It is ruled by a military junta and is generally considered a closed society. Algeria borders Morocco and has fought several wars over the years with Morocco. Currently Algeria and Morocco are not at war, but they maintain strained relations and the border between the two countries is sealed and militarized. If you try to enter Algeria from Morocco (to hunt meteorites or otherwise), you will either step on a landmine or you will be shot on sight. Furthermore, local Bedouin nomads are very reluctant to cross the border and they will be the first to tell you that foreigners should stay away from Algeria, especially Americans and Europeans. 

The Algerian government has never made any announcements regarding meteorites and they have never taken any actions regarding meteorites that are known. However, it is generally accepted in the world of museum curators that Algerian meteorites are "illegal" and they refuse to accept recent Algerian meteorites into their collections. I have no idea how the museum curators justify this, or where they got their information from, but is their current practice. A recent example is the Breja meteorite fall from 2010. At least one major British museum has refused to accept any Breja specimens into their collection because they claim it was not legally exported from Algeria. Does this mean Algerian meteorites are illegal? No. It just means that the museums are being very cautious. I am not criticizing their policies, but merely stating that there is no solid evidence to support the claim that Algerian meteorites are illegal.

Many meteorites from the NWA region originate in Algeria and even some of the NWA meteorites that are listed as being from Morocco, actually come from Algeria. It is common practice for Moroccan hunters and dealers to mask the origin of Algerian meteorites by claiming they were found in Morocco. The reason they do this is not because the meteorites are illegal and they are trying to conceal that fact. The real reason is that many Moroccan meteorite hunters cross the border into Algeria at the risk of their own lives to recover meteorites. If it became known where and when these border crossings were taking place, the Moroccans could be killed. So they are protecting themselves and not trying to launder illegal meteorites. The meteorites themselves are legal, but the crossing over the Algerian border is very dangerous. 

Oman. Just like with Algeria, it is impossible to find any Omani law on the internet that says it is illegal to remove Omani meteorites from the country. However, this does not mean such a law does not exist, because the Omanis have recently taken a very public action against two well-known American meteorite hunters.

In late 2010, two American meteorite hunters were detained and imprisoned in Oman for attempting to remove Omani meteorites from the country. After a long, arduous, and expensive legal battle, the hunters prevailed and were allowed to leave Oman without their meteorites and personal possessions - all of which were seized. There is an Omani law that forbids the "mining" of natural resources without permission from the Omani government. A zealous Omani official attempted to use this law as justification for arresting the hunters and the case went to court in the capital of Muscat. The meteorite hunters won the case, but it was a costly victory. They lost all their personal possessions (electronics, etc), their meteorites were seized, and they were banned from returning to the country. However, they were not convicted of a crime because the court determined that they were not "mining" materials and the mining law did not apply to picking up meteorites off the ground.

Interestingly, a law exists that forbids the removal of fossils, minerals, and even seashells from Oman, but the law does not specifically mention meteorites. I do not know if the law has been changed to include meteorites, but it is clear from this recent debacle that the Omani government takes a dim view of some foreign meteorite hunters. It should also be noted that there have been numerous meteorite-hunting expeditions to Oman in the past and these expeditions were successful and did not involve any trouble or legal issues. So it appears to some that the arrest and prosecution of the meteorite hunters mentioned above may have been a personal vendetta against those specific meteorite hunters and not a shift in how Oman views all meteorite hunters.

So, are Omani meteorites legal or not? Maybe. But honestly, nobody can really say. Until an Omani official goes on the record to say one way or the other, this will remain a legal grey area. Again, if someone can find any Omani law on the internet that addresses meteorites, please point me to it, because I have looked long and hard and found nothing. Well-known Omani meteorites include Ghubara, SAU meteorites, Shisr meteorites, Dhofar meteorites, and many others with names that are familiar to collectors. Many of the world's best Lunar and Martian meteorites originate from the Dhofar strewnfields in Oman. Until firm evidence to the contrary surfaces, I would advise that Omani meteorites are legal to own and trade. However, I would not recommend going to Oman and trying to remove them, or you may find yourself sitting in a Muscat jail. 

Australia and Canada are two nations who have unambiguous policies regarding meteorite recovery and export. In these countries, it is legal to possess or trade meteorites inside the country, but it is illegal to export those same meteorites without a proper permit from the government. This applies only to meteorite recovered in those countries, and not meteorites from other countries that are currently in Australian or Canadian collections.

In the case of Canada, the Canadian government will issue export permits and many Canadian meteorites are legally exported through this process. A recent example is Buzzard Coulee. Right after the Buzzard Coulee meteorite fall, many specimens were recovered and those specimens had to go through a permitting process. The permitting process took several months to complete and those meteorites could not be legally exported until the process was completed and valid permits were issued. Eventually, the permits were issued and Buzzard Coulee meteorites legally entered the global collector market. The Canadian government has repeatedly demonstrated a reasonable and rational approach to the permitting process and there have been very few complaints from collectors about it. The Canadian model has not discouraged private involvement in meteorite recovery because private hunters have been fairly compensated for their efforts.

Australia is a somewhat different case than Canada. Like Canada, the laws and their enforcement are well-known, which is a stark contrast to the situation in countries like Algeria and Oman. However, the Australian laws discourage private recovery and ownership by usurping ownership rights to all meteorites found on Australian soil. In other words, Australian meteorites belong to the Australian government and there have been cases were meteorite hunters were compelled to surrender their finds to official Australian institutions without fair compensation. This has effectively deterred much private involvement in the recovery of Australian meteorites and has arguably hurt the pursuit of meteorite science in that country. However, it should be noted that Australian policy is not uniform and it varies from area to area within Australia. Also, the Australian government will issue permits for legal export (like Canada does), but the process is less transparent and permits are more difficult to come by.

Europe. European laws regarding meteorites vary from nation to nation. In many cases, the export of meteorites is forbidden across international borders. For example, if a meteorite falls anywhere in Denmark, it is the property of the national government and may not be privately held or traded to anyone without the approval of the Danish government. There are too many individual countries in Europe to address each one singly, but it is safe to say that in some cases the trade of European meteorites across international borders may be restricted or forbidden in some way. Since many members of the private meteorite collecting community are European, it is easy to simply ask a citizen of a given European nation about the laws in that nation. There is little ambiguity in these laws of the type we see in some other places.

Antarctica. This is one of the few cases where the laws regarding meteorite trade are well-understood. In short, anything found in Antarctica is not private property and cannot be traded or exchanged for profit or private ownership. This includes rocks, minerals, fossils, flora, fauna, and other natural resources, including meteorites. Several nations (including the US, Japan, and China) have active meteorite recovery programs in Antarctica which consist of official scientific teams who recover meteorites on the behalf of various scientific institutions. The most well-known of these official expedition teams is ANSMET (ANtarctic Search for METeorites) which is a joint venture of the National Science Foundation, NASA, and other entities. The vast majority of ANSMET meteorites are held in institutional collections that are accessible only by scientists and other institutions - these meteorites are out of circulation and unavailable to private collectors.

There are small amounts of Antarctic meteorites that entered the private market legally before the ANSMET program and these are available to collectors, but they are in extreme minority and are generally considered to be very rare for collector purposes.

Finally, let us examine UNESCO. It has been reported by some observers that UNESCO regulations forbid the international trade of meteorites. First, for the record, the word "meteorite" is not mentioned a single time anywhere in UNESCO's regulations regarding cultural artifacts and prohibited trade commodities. Secondly, UNESCO is an organization under the auspices of the United Nations that was created to (quote from UNESCO) - "to contribute to the building of peace, the eradication of poverty, sustainable development and intercultural dialogue through education, the sciences, culture, communication and information".

Nowhere in the UNESCO mission statement, or official statements, are meteorites specifically addressed. Interestingly, on a political note, in 2011 the territory of Palestine was accepted as a signatory member of UNESCO (joining 195 other nations). This move has irritated the US and Israel and both have suspended their funding of UNESCO and there have been some rumblings that both may withdraw as signatory members in protest. If so, UNESCO would not apply at all to the US or Israel, meteorites or otherwise.

At any rate, one of UNESCO's main mission goals is the open exchange of information and the enhancement of global education. If UNESCO were to restrict the exchange of meteorites, this would arguably contradict their primary mission statement by inhibiting scientific access to some meteorites which are currently available on the private trade market. Like any bureaucratic body or product of a bureaucratic body, statements issued by UNESCO are open to interpretation and one nation's interpretation may vary from that of another. I have looked far and wide on the internet for any connection between UNESCO and meteorites and have been unable to find a single example of such.

In conclusion, there is one thing to keep in mind when considering the legalities of meteorites or any other material or commodity - laws and regulation vary in their interpretation and enforcement. In many cases, a law is a starting place for a position on a given issue, and the final word is often determined by the interpretation of that law by a judge or panel of judges in a court setting. There are very few modern examples of the matter of international meteorite trade being taken up in court and none of those cases involve any kind of definitive statement forbidding the private exchange of meteorites. Until such a time that a definitive, authoritative, and clear statement against private meteorite exchange is issued by an authority with jurisdiction over multiple national entities, one can safely operate under the current status quo of meteorite trading.