Bias in the Meteor

By Anthony Weiss

Published April 07, 2006, issue of April 07, 2006.
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According to biblical literalists, the heavens have already rendered their opinion on Israel’s borders. But now, it seems, the skies are offering a second opinion.

On April 11 in New York, Bonhams & Butterfields is scheduled to auction off a series of meteorites, including a slice that looks suspiciously like Israel. A little distorted, perhaps, but you can make out the basics: the Negev, the Mediterranean coast, the Galilee — but no West Bank.

The 7 1/2-by-5-inch sliver is currently owned by Darryl Pitt, an irrepressible meteorite enthusiast and the proprietor of the Macovich Collection, which specializes in aesthetic meteorites. This specimen is particularly valuable, less for its cartographic contours than for its provenance. It is a slice off of the Willamette Meteorite, one of the world’s most famous, and a crown jewel of New York’s American Museum of Natural History.

Pitt obtained his piece of the meteorite through barter. In 1998, the museum decided to slice off a chunk of the Willamette to allow scientific study of the interior layers. Pitt picked up a few pieces in exchange for a hunk of Mars. (“It’s like trading baseball cards,” he quipped to the Forward.) When he sold some of the pieces later that year, the museum was criticized in the press for trading away a piece of such an important specimen. Museums have since cracked down on the practice.

“It’s so unusual to acquire part of the centerpiece of a major museum,” Pitt told the Forward. He estimated that the piece would sell for $8,000 to $10,000 — five to seven times its weight in gold.

Like Israel, the Willamette has been at the heart of ownership disputes. In 1902, Oregonian Ellis Hughes discovered the meteorite half-buried in nearby woods, dragged it onto his property, and displayed it to the public — and was promptly sued by his first customer. The customer, it so happened, was a lawyer for Oregon Iron & Steel, which owned those nearby woods.

The meteorite eventually made its way to the American Museum of Natural History. In 1991, Oregon schoolchildren started a national campaign to bring the Willamette back home to Oregon. After that failed, the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde brought their own claim to the meteorite in 2000. After a flurry of lawsuits and countersuits, the tribe and the museum reached a compromise: The museum kept the meteorite, but once a year the Grand Ronde have visitation rights for a private ceremony with it.

What lessons on peacemaking does the Israel-shaped piece of the Willamette have to offer? That it exists at all is a slap in the face to Hamas, which still refuses to recognize Israel, even in its pre-1967 borders. The map does not include the West Bank — which will disappoint the settlers who oppose Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s plan for an Israeli pullout. At the same time, the area does seem to include Gaza, despite Israel’s withdrawal from the strip last year, And, sorry, Avigdor Lieberman — leader of Israel’s ultranationalist Beitenu party and advocate for handing Israeli Arab villages to the Palestinians — but the regions of the Galilee appear to be intact.

In other words, something to disappoint everyone. Perhaps that’s the message from above.

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