The Crown Section of the Willamette Meteorite

The rarest of collecting opportunities: the ability to acquire
a prominent portion of a centerpiece exhibit in a world-renowned museum

TOP ROW, LEFT TO RIGHT: Willamette meteorite shortly after its discovery; Willamette meteorite on exhibition at 1905 World's Fair.
SECOND ROW: Willamette meteorite on display at the old Hayden Planetarium in New York City; exterior view of crown section; on display at the American Museum of Natural History's Rose Center for Earth and Space in New York City; cut face of crown section where crystalline structure is visible.
BELOW: Birds-eye view of meteorite revealing missing crown section; on display at the old Hayden Planetarium.

The Willamette meteorite is the largest meteorite found in North America. As it was discovered on the surface of Oregon woods, it is believed the meteorite fell in Canada and was deposited in Oregon during the last Ice Age. According to Clackamas Indian tradition, however, the meteorite called “Tomanowos,” or “Heavenly Visitor,” was delivered from the Moon to the Clackamas, and healed and empowered the Native American community in the Willamette Valley since the beginning of time.

The Willamette meteorite was “discovered” in 1902 when a miner named Ellis Hughes noticed the meteorite on property adjacent to his own, which belonged to Oregon Iron & Steel. Hughes ingeniously moved the meteorite onto a wagon, and using a horse, cables and capstan, Hughes moved the 15.5 ton mass of nickel-iron over a period of months onto his land and charged the curious a fee to see it. On October 24, 1903 the Portland Oregonian reported Hughes' discovery and the crowds on his front yard swelled.

Unfortunately for Hughes, one of his customers—an attorney from Oregon Iron & Steel—noticed the path leading from the meteorite to his employer’s land. The company subsequently sued for and won possession. While the meteorite was on display at the World's Fair in Portland (and its resting place was being debated by local civic leaders) Oregon Iron and Steel sold the meteorite to Mrs. William Dodge, who then gifted the meteorite to the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

The Willamette meteorite has been on display at the museum for 102 years—and its tenure has not been a quiet one. It has been a centerpiece in two major exhibit halls and has been touched by an estimated 50 million people—and there have been two additional custody disputes.

In 1990, tens of thousands of schoolchildren signed petitions to have the meteorite returned to Oregon. A bill was proposed in support of the schoolchildren’s ambitions in the U.S. Senate and an Oregon congressman advanced the notion of withholding federal funding earmarked for the museum until the meteorite was returned. A concerted effort was made to convince the childrens’ mentors to discontinue their effort--and the childrens’ campaign was suddenly dropped.

In 1999, a coalition of tribes of Oregonian Native Americans, The Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, filed a claim to have the meteorite returned to Oregon by invoking the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA)—typically used to retrieve burial remains and crafted artifacts. In response to the Grand Ronde’s invocation of NAGPRA, the museum filed a lawsuit in federal court in which the Grand Ronde’s claims were contested, and the museum requested a declaratory judgment that the meteorite was museum property. The parties eventually settled out-of-court and the meteorite remains the centerpiece of the museum's Rose Center where there is now signage indicating the meteorite’s spiritual connection to the Grand Ronde’s predecessors. There is also an agreement it can never again be cut.

The section offered here was removed from the meteorite in 1997 to complete an exchange between the Museum and the Macovich Collection, for which the Museum received an exotic piece of Mars. The specimen is characterized by two swooping flanges—one of which contains a naturally formed hole—which curve and meet above the specimen's cut surface featuring the crystallized internal structure. Two large troilite (iron sulfide) inclusions further punctuate this aesthetic end piece. The cut face was prepared using an old fashioned technique in which the outermost edge of the interior face is highly polished, providing a "frame" around the sparkling matrix.

While a media uproar occurred in 2007 regarding the supposed defacing of the meteorite, such claims are unfounded. When a single meteorite is recovered with no additional specimens from the same event, the meteorite necessarily undergoes subdivision by scientists for analysis. If one looks closely at the mass on exhibit today, the viewer will note other specimens have been removed —of which very little is accounted for. Science was again served when this meteorite was cut in 1997. The curator of the Macovich Collection, Darryl Pitt, noticed unusual bubbling at the margin of an inclusion and contacted an expert in iron meteorites, Dr. John Wasson of UCLA, who in 2007 wrote in part, "These bubbles are fascinating. We cannot remember having seen angular FeS fragments entrained into a eutectic melt before." In September 2010, Dr. John Rubin of UCLA sought to acquire a specimen containing the anomaly for further research and further expressed a desire to write a paper on the same.

The last time a specimen of Willamette sold, it brought nearly three times its weight in gold (as of 11/3/10 - $1340/oz). An extremely noteworthy offering, this is a singular specimen of a preeminent meteorite. 246 x 279 x 158mm (9.5 x 11 x 6.25 inches) and 13.399 kilos (29.5 pounds).


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