How Michael Farmer made a fortune from space rocks

Michael Farmer is willing to risk foreign jails, muggings - even his own life - for small but precious fragments of the moon.

Twenty years ago, Michael Farmer bought a meteorite fragment for $75 at a minerals exhibition in Tucson, Arizona. It changed his life. "I became absolutely obsessed and hooked," he tells National Geographic, eventually becoming one of a small band of dedicated meteorite hunters who scour the globe for extra-terrestrial rocks and sell them on at profit to scientists, museums and private collectors.

"I've been around the world more times than I can count," says Farmer. It's dangerous work. He was nearly murdered in Kenya, was forced to flee across the border in Peru and, two years ago, spent three months in prison in Oman for illegal mining activity'. "Not a very nice time."

The recent meteorite crash in the Russian Urals, which caused an explosion injuring hundreds, has got Farmer excited. "It's a historic event. The preliminary data from Nasa says about 7,000 tons landed." For a space rock hunter, that's big bounty.

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Farmer reckons there are only a couple of hundred thousand known meteorite fragments in the world: millions fall to Earth, but they mostly land in heavy forest, jungle or the ocean where they're lost forever. His most lucrative find was an extremely rare pallasite: a 53-kilo "stony-iron" rock, around 4.5 billion years old, which he dug up in Canada and sold to the Canadian government for just under $1m (see below).

Meteorite hunters fall into a distinct type, says The Wall Street Journal. "Almost all men, they tend to be white, middle-aged and fascinated by space since they were boys." It's not the money that drives them (though that is clearly a factor) so much as the quest. They all speak longingly of the meteorites they hope to find.

There's camaraderie, but it's highly competitive. News of a meteorite shower sends them scrambling to the airport to be the first to rake over the pickings. There's a certain magic, says Farmer, about touching something that was hurtling through space just days before. The New Scientist notes that he has the "unusual habit" of eating a small piece of every moon or Mars rock that he's ever bought or found.

Before he fell in love with meteorites, Farmer was something of a drifter. At 25, he was attending the University of Arizona on the "GI Bill" (army funding assistance), vaguely contemplating a career in the CIA. Then he wandered into that Tucson show. His first proper deal saw him "beg and borrow" to buy a $4,000 box of 40 rocks from "an old-timer" he had met there. "I quadrupled my money on those stones in about 48 hours." Within a year, he'd made enough to fund the first of dozens of trips to his favourite hunting ground, Africa.

Farmer isn't afraid to take risks those who don't "gain little", he says. But he keeps a stash of meteorites in a fireproof vault in his home as life insurance. If he is killed on a journey, he has instructed a friend on how to dispose of the contents and give the proceeds to his wife.

The big-hitters in the space-rock market

So what's the going rate for meteorites? asks Jay MacDonald on the US financial website Their value depends on size (starting from the size of a grape) and provenance, "with fragments of the moon or Mars generally being the most prized" because of their rarity. "I have meteorites I can sell you for less than $100/lb," says Farmer. "But for lunar meteorites, you're talking $1,000 a gram."

Out of around 70 known lunar specimens, Farmer has found three. The market has performed well in recession, he says. "The supply is very low and demand has really been going up." In the year following the 2008 financial crash, prices quadrupled. He has a client list running to several hundreds who are always interested in rocks in the $10,000-$100,000 range; and maybe "20 big-hitters", prepared to pay $1m-plus for exceptional rocks.

Farmer works in close cahoots with scientists, says Jeremy Berlin in National Geographic. "I supply them with rocks, they supply me with data, which I need to make money. People want to know what something is before they buy it."

But he admits there's "always friction" between the collecting and scientific markets. "There are scientists out there who believe that no meteorite should be in private hands." What they forget is that "if it wasn't for us, 99% of these meteorites would be lost to science".

The best place to find meteorites is in the desert. Because they're full of iron and metal, space rocks tend to deteriorate if they fall anywhere close to water, losing scientific and monetary value.

Farmer has also established a broking business. "Sometimes I buy this stuff by the ton, and it goes into storage and I sell it off one piece at a time." After a bruising encounter with the stock market, he keeps his own wealth in inventory. One great thing about meteorites: you can't fake them.