finding meteorites with metal detectors

Can You Legally Sell Meteorites? How & Where To Sell Meteorites

Last Updated: November 14, 2022

Meteorites have become particularly popular and sought after. But how do you know if that strange rock is in fact, a meteorite? How would you go about selling it and how much could you get for it?

Let’s investigate how to identify, verify, and sell a meteorite.

Meteorite basics: Common terms

  • Asteroid: a large rock in space
  • Meteoroid: a small rock in space (often from asteroids) that interacts with Earth’s atmosphere 
  • Meteor: the streak of light seen across the sky as the meteoroid heats up in the atmosphere due to the compression of air in front of it. As it continues to travel toward the Earth, the atmosphere will slow it down and cool it, typically extinguishing the light we see as a meteor before it hits the ground.
  • Meteorite: the remnant of a meteoroid that falls to the ground (uncommon as most meteoroids are the size of a grain of sand and even larger ones burn up in the atmosphere, losing most to all of their mass).

The different types of meteorites:

Stony meteorite

Stony meteorites consist mostly of silicate materials with metal grains or chondrules (larger circular areas) in varying degrees.

  • Chondrites: the most common type of meteorite; they contain some of the oldest rock in the solar system; silicate minerals along with small grains of sulphides and iron-nickel metal.
  • Achondrites: igneous rock that was previously magma that has cooled and crystallized; some achondrite meteorites are from the Moon or Mars while others are from asteroids; these are rare

Stony-iron meteorites

Stony-iron meteorites feature almost equal parts iron-nickel metal and silicate minerals including precious and semi-precious gemstones

  • Pallasites: contain olivine gemstones embedded in metal.
  • Mesosiderites: formed from the collision of two asteroids, broken fragments of minerals or rock held together by a finer material

Iron Meteorites

They are almost wholly made up of metal, mainly of iron-nickel metal with small amounts of sulphide and carbide minerals; thought to be the cores of asteroids that melted early on in their development

There are various types of meteorites, with different monetary values.

Common misconceptions about meteorites

  • Most of the rocks that seem to fall from the sky are not meteors. Just because a rock suddenly appears one day, doesn’t mean it was a meteorite. Just because it looks different than other rocks around it, doesn’t mean it’s a meteorite.
  • Do not expect to see a hot flaming rock dug deep into the Earth.
  • Meteors do not land burning hot unless they are very, very big, such as the one that hit Meteor Crater big. 
  • Even if you see a meteor streak across the sky as a fireball, and it does actually land on Earth, there is a good chance you will not find it. As the meteoroid travels through the atmosphere and cools, the light we see as the meteor will disappear before it hits the ground, making the meteorite (if there is one) hard to find.
  • By the time the meteorite hits the ground, the atmosphere will slow it down to terminal velocity, meaning it will be no different if someone dropped the rock out of an airplane and therefore we do not find meteors in a hole 15 feet deep.
  • Over half of all meteorites were found in Antarctica and over 20% were found in Africa. North, Central, and South America combined only account for less than 7% of meteorite finds and not even 1% have been found in Europe. Finds are most common in dry deserts. https://sites.wustl.edu/meteoritesite/items/some-meteorite-statistics/ 
  • From 1807-2021 (214 years), 1,878 meteorites were found across the U.S. meaning an average of less than 9 a year. 
  • The majority of people who think they’ve found a meteorite simply have a cool rock from Earth.

Meteorites handling tips

There is nothing dangerous about touching a meteorite, but it is sometimes recommended to use a Ziplock bag flipped inside out to pick a meteorite up to reduce contamination (from you to it) particularly if you are planning to donate or sell it for scientific investigation.

Meteorites come in all sizes, though most are rather small and can be weighed with a digital scale, ideally one for cooking or postage so that you can be as exact as possible.

Can you sell a meteorite legally?

Let’s talk briefly about legality. Is the meteorite yours? Meteorite ownership law varies around the world so research the laws in your country to determine if you are allowed to claim ownership of the meteorite and if so, if you are able to sell it.

In the U.S. you have to own the property on which the meteorite was found for it to be considered yours. Meteorite hunters often make deals with land owners to hunt on their land for meteorites, either splitting the earnings or in exchange for a flat fee to hunt for them. For federal property, the U.S. Department of Interior, Bureau of Land Management allows casual collection of up to 10 lbs. per year of meteorites, but you cannot sell them without obtaining a permit, and they are subject to other rules. 

For more details: http://www.blm.gov/style/medialib/blm/wo/Information_Resources_Management/policy/im_attachments/2012.Par.65264.File.dat/IM2012-182_att1.pdf 

In other countries, the laws vary greatly. In some, meteorites found within its borders are the property of the country and therefore must be turned over to the state (sometimes for compensation) or be subject to fines or even prosecution. For more information be sure to check out https://www.lpi.usra.edu/meetings/metsoc2001/pdf/5150.pdf

meteorite on the grass

There are highly motivated meteorites hunter out there whose hobby revolves around finding the rarest ones.

How to identify a meteorite

The top two features to look for to determine if something is a meteorite are a fusion crust and magnetism (a common kitchen magnet will work). Meteorites are magnetic since they contain iron-nickel metal, but what is a fusion crust? 

When small rocks in space orbiting the sun enter Earth’s atmosphere, they travel at speeds ranging from 14 km/s (31,000 mph) to 45 km/s(100,000 mph), severely compressing the air in the path of the rock. The rapidly compressed air increases in temperature, causing the exterior of the stony meteorite to melt. This exterior is so hot that it immediately sloughs off (ablates), melting the material underneath. Meteoroids lose most of their mass as they pass through the atmosphere, but when they slow down enough that melting stops, the last melt cools, making a thin, glassy coating called a fusion crust.   

The fusion crust is about 1-2 mm thick on stony meteorites. It is often shiny and black or darker than the interior. When you cut into Chondrites there are metal grains inside, often identifiable by being shiny or larger globs of rusty material. The fusion crust does flake off so weathering can slowly remove the fusion crust, but most still have some fusion crust even after thousands of years. The fusion crust also can feature contraction cracks from when the glass cools and solidifies. Contrary to popular belief, the majority of meteorites are relatively smooth on their surface due to the melting. 

While a fusion crust is the most important characteristic in determining if something is a meteorite, there is debate on whether iron meteorites have a fusion crust. Many scientists classify it as a patina (like when your silver tarnishes). Iron meteorites often look almost like when you squeeze putty in your hand, but metallic. Many manmade objects seem similar though. Slag, the byproduct of smelting ores, is often mistaken for meteorites, but slags feature a rough surface, vesicles, the same color on the interior and exterior, flow features, and a glassy interior. In addition, melted aluminum or other metal is often mistaken for meteorites, but many will appear bulbous as opposed to smooth and will not be magnetic. 

Another characteristic to look for is the presence of regmaglypts: shallow depressions/ dimples on the surface of some meteorites, formed as they pass through Earth’s atmosphere. Regmaglypts are especially common on iron meteorites. If a rock has dimples, depressions, or pits, but no fusion crust, these are not regmaglypts but formed by other Earth processes. Many mistake vesicles, gas bubbles that form from igneous rock formation (i.e. cooled lava like basalt), for regmaglypts. The exception to this rule is lunar or Martian meteorites since they (like Earth) were formed during igneous processes, but these types of meteorites are extremely rare so odds are your rock is just one from Earth. They also may not feature a fusion crust. No one can identify these meteorites by visual cues; testing is needed.

If you suspect it is a meteorite, saw off a piece with a tile saw, or go to a local rock shop to use a lapidary saw to see what is inside which will help you further determine if it might be a meteorite. DO NOT use a file or abrasive rotary drill. You will NOT decrease the value of your meteorite if it is one as doing so will either confirm or disprove it.

There are many resources including flow charts and pictures to help determine if your rock may be a meteorite. If possible, send pictures to an expert to confirm your chances at having a meteorite, but be aware that many experts have stopped offering these services due to the influx of uninformed requests in recent years.

meteorite above the surface

Meteorites are generally not very hot when they land on the ground. The journey through the atmosphere cools them down after their initial burn when they enter the atmosphere.

It’s a meteorite! What’s it worth? How do I list it?

If you go through all of this and you get confirmation that your rock is a meteorite, what now?

The unfortunate reality is that even if it is a meteorite, it’s often not worth as much as you would think. Ordinary stony Chondrites and iron meteorites are the most common and therefore not worth much monetarily. 

  • Stony meteorites can range from less than a dollar to maybe $3-5 per gram 
  • Iron meteorites will typically be worth a little more, maybe $5-8 per gram

Rare cases where you could get more money:

  • Pallasites (meteors containing the gemstone Olivine) will fetch a higher price; the bigger the olivine, the more expensive per gram. 
  • Lunar, martian, and other achondrites are very rare and therefore can be thousands of dollars per gram.

You can list your meteorite on popular online marketplaces, but buyers will often want documentation (as you should to ensure that you are not scammed). It’s often recommended to contact a meteor seller instead as they can do all the work of preparing it and selling it while you get cash for the find.

It is also highly recommended to sell or donate it to an educational institution such as a museum or university so that it can be used to better understand our solar system.

Common factors that increase or decrease the value of your meteorite

  • Location of the find: meteorites from rarer locations like America or Europe will often fetch a higher price than those that feature higher concentrations such as the Sahara.
  • Timing since find: “Fresh falls” will go for higher prices than finds later on, but prices will decrease as time from the event increases.
  • Amount of meteorites from that event: If it is classified as coming from a specific impact, the value will be higher if there are fewer pieces from that event. 
  • “A good story”: Meteorites that have interesting backstories, particularly on where they hit can push up the value.
  • Size: As meteorites are typically sold at a set cost per gram, the larger it is, the more money you could potentially receive. A massive meteorite (i.e. dozens of pounds) will be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. 
  • Attractiveness and preparation: Meteorites that are prepared well with cutting, shaping, and polishing do better than ones plucked from the ground. Most finders don’t have the tools or expertise to prepare a meteorite and risk damaging it. Sellers often have the ability to prepare a meteorite that will have a higher price tag. Some meteorites are also considered prettier (i.e. Sikhote-Alin) and will fetch a higher price.
  • Classification, documentation, and provenance: Being able to prove that something is what you say it is will increase its value. Having the meteorite tested and providing the results will help to prove its value. Many collectors, sellers, and buyers will not entertain requests without proper documentation.

Conclusion

Meteorites are rare and between Earth and human processes, most cases end up being just a weird Earth rock. However, if you follow the typical characteristics of meteorites and get it tested, you may very well have a genuine rock from space. 

Depending on the rarity, you may be able to make some money from it, and/or contribute to our understanding of science. Or you can keep it as part of your collection, whether it came from outer space or not.

Sarah H.

Written by Sarah Hoffschwelle

Sarah Hoffschwelle is a freelance writer who covers a combination of topics including astronomy, general science and STEM, self-development, art, and societal commentary. In the past, Sarah worked in educational nonprofits providing free-choice learning experiences for audiences ages 2-99. As a lifelong space nerd, she loves sharing the universe with others through her words. She currently writes on Medium at https://medium.com/@sarah-marie and authors self-help and children’s books.

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