Meet Michael Farmer, aka Meteorite Guy
In the exclusive world of meteorite brokers, his rise has been, well ...
Twelve years ago, a stock boy at Target purchased a chunk of space debris at the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show that changed his life forever.
Michael Farmer, aka the Meteorite Guy, holding a 20-pound meteorite on the boarder of Morocco. According to his website, he is wearing a "Jeleba," a traditional outfit for the area, to blend into this hostile-to-Westerners area. See the slide show below for more pictures of him and his collection.
Today, that former star-struck stock boy thinks nothing of charging $20,000 to his well-traveled business credit card for outer space real estate the size of a Milky Way bar.
He has flashed his plastic to sun-baked Bedouins, parched Peruvians and rustic Russians in exchange for fragments from the final frontier. He has taken more than 50 trips to Africa and earned 3 million frequent flier miles on one airline alone.
He has not only held pieces of the moon and Mars in his hands -- he has tasted them.
"I've eaten a piece of every moon rock and Mars rock that I have purchased or found, just to say I did it," he chuckles. "We are all made of space rock."
Welcome to the out-of-this-world life of Michael Farmer, aka Meteorite Guy, one of only about 20 professional meteorite brokers -- on this planet anyway.
Building a rock-solid empire
Farmer was a 25-year-old college student attending the University of Arizona on the G.I. Bill, stocking shelves part time and vaguely drifting toward a career with the CIA when he happened to wander into the largest gem and mineral show on earth.
"I bought a rock (meteorite) for $70 and got so fascinated with it that it changed the course of my life," Farmer recalls. "When I saw it, I thought, 'Wow, I'm holding a piece of outer space!'"
Anxious to find more, he scoured the gem show site until he met an old-timer who had a box of 40 meteorites hidden under the table. His asking price: $4,000 for the box.
"I had no money at the time, so I had to beg and borrow to buy the box," Farmer recalls. "When I started researching the meteorites, I found that that they were from a very rare collection, and I quadrupled my money on those stones in about 48 hours. That's when I realized you could actually make money doing this."
Within a year, Farmer had earned enough to make the first of dozens of trips to Africa, initially focusing on the Sahara Desert.
Why the desert? Prepare to be mentally humbled.
I have meteorites I can sell you for less than $100 a pound, but the lunar meteorites, you're talking $1,000 a gram.
|-- Michael Farmer
The Meteorite Guy
"You have no ground cover, no vegetation and it's dry," Farmer explains. "Water affects meteorites because most of them are full of iron and metal, so they deteriorate in water. Anything that falls in the desert lasts 50,000 years, just like any other rock."
What's more, the contrast with all that sand makes them pretty easy to spot.
"I go hunting myself in Oman in the Middle East, and it looks like you're driving on snow over this white limestone and there are no black rocks there," he says. "If you see a black rock, 99 percent of the time it's a meteorite. You can pick up anywhere from five to 20 meteorites a day there."
Farmer says the French initially showed Moroccan nomads a few meteorites and offered to buy any they might find in their journeys across Mali, Algeria and Mauritania.
"The nomads started bringing them in by the ton," he says. "I used to go there and buy 800-900 pounds of rock in a day."
So does a Berber nomad take Visa?
"You'd be surprised!" Farmer laughs. "If they can't take a card, they can find somebody who can. I've actually done that in Africa; when I've depleted my cash, at the last second I've gone to businesses and charged a card, and they give the nomad their money."
Nomads may live in the desert, but they are far from isolated these days, thanks to cellular phones and the Internet. Many nomadic meteorite hunters now sell directly to collectors and museums worldwide, and they drive a harder bargain with brokers like Farmer.
"When I started, they were loading meteorites onto camel trains; now they all drive Land Cruisers and carry multiple cell phones," he chuckles. "They're all very rich now. They have bigger houses than I do." Story continues below.
A far out investment
Meteorites come in all dimensions, from the size of a grape to a 50-gallon drum. Their value to collectors and museums depends on their provenance, with fragments of the moon or Mars generally being the most prized.
That's right, we've had moon rocks and Mars bars under foot long before the dawn of the space program, thanks to meteor strikes there that sent chunks from those low-atmosphere orbs hurtling here.
But they're rare; out of about 70 known lunar meteorites, Farmer has found three.
"I have meteorites I can sell you for less than $100 a pound, but the lunar meteorites, you're talking $1,000 a gram," he says. "By contrast, gold right now is $30 a gram."
The rarest meteorites sell for more than $1 million. Farmer once paid $125,000 for a 1.25-pound moon rock from Morocco the size of a baseball.
"I chopped it up, recovered most of the money and I have 50 percent left," he says. "We don't have one moon rock ever that was seen to fall. If that happens, the sky's the limit on price."
Brokers tend to both hunt their own -- it is found money, after all -- and broker deals with collectors and museums, often literally taking a slice of the rock for their services if the stone is not sold whole. Some of Farmer's stones are on display at the Smithsonian Institute and the American Museum of Natural History.
"It has taken me 12 years to build a client list. Right now, I have a client list where anything in the $10,000-$100,000 range, I can usually make a phone call and sell it. There are a few hundred on my list, but only about 20 big hitters," Farmer says.
Theoretically, seven out of 10 meteorites fall into the ocean, since the oceans cover 70 percent of the earth's surface. But before you rush to the shore with your scuba gear, you should know that there's not much market for soggy chunks.
"Finding them would be too expensive, and they wouldn't last very long because they would start oxidizing the minute they hit the water," Farmer explains. "Collectors and scientists don't like that. It's contaminated."
When I put $50,000 into rock, it tends to be because I like it and can look at it every day and see where my money is.
|-- Michael Farmer
The Meteorite Guy
And contrary to Hollywood hype, although most meteorites hit the earth at a terminal velocity of around 120 miles per hour, they're not sizzling hot when they strike, having passed through the earth's frigid upper atmosphere. "You see this burning but it all stops 20 miles high," Farmer says.
Although Farmer has endured scorching desert heat and subzero arctic temperatures in pursuit of meteorites, a fair number of them land on ordinary Main Streets around the globe. He frequently gets calls from startled folks such as those in the Chicago suburb of Park Forest, where hundreds of stones fell around midnight in 2003.
"One woman was on her computer and saw a light out the window and suddenly there was a big explosion as a rock came through her roof and hit her printer two feet away," Farmer says. "Another stone went through the roof of a house, through the upstairs and downstairs floors and ended up in a pile of laundry in the basement."
The February fall near Waco, Texas, was the first to be captured on Doppler weather radar, which set up a modern-day rock rush of hunters and collectors.
"I saw it on CNN and was on a plane the next morning. We pinpointed it, we drove there and we were dead on," Farmer says. "Unfortunately, so were about 70 other hunters. Even collectors came out. I would negotiate with a landowner to hunt on their land and an hour later he would throw us out because someone else had made him a better offer."
So how fares the meteorite market in these recessionary times?
"The supply is very low and the demand has really been going up in the last few years," says Farmer. "Prices have quadrupled on certain items just in the last year."
He is currently working on a $1.5 million sale of a 120-pound meteorite. He once negotiated in a similar price range with the Russians for a whopper weighing 3.5 tons.
Having been burned investing in less rock-solid opportunities, Farmer says he's learned to keep his money in his inventory. One great thing about meteorites: you can't fake them.
"I lost about a quarter-million dollars in the stock market and realized maybe I should stick to something I know. When I put $50,000 into rock, it tends to be because I like it and can look at it every day and see where my money is. And if the house burns down, I can pull them out of the ashes."
See related: Credit card travel preperations, Card use overseas: Beware conversion and exchange fees, Taking too many financial risks? Blame your brain, 13 greatest credit card songs meld pop, plastic, Zodiac credit cards
Published: August 13, 2009
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