Source: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Precious Stones From Sky Spark Bounty Hunt in Turkey Village

  • Meteor explosion lures NASA scientists and Turkish taxman
  • Finders sell fragments to buy cars, fund pilgrimage to Mecca

Ahmet Aslan was enjoying a peaceful night outside his house on Sept. 2 when a shooting star lit up the skies. Ever since, his village in southeast Turkey has been turned upside down.

“This one didn’t disappear like they usually do -- instead, it exploded. Stones started falling on our roofs like rain,” Aslan, headman of the village of Saricicek in Bingol province, said by phone on Nov. 20.

Then, villagers -- and outsiders -- began to realize that the stones might be precious, sparking a modest gold rush. Weeks later, Saricicek’s 3,400 residents have been joined by hundreds of “stone hunters” scrambling day and night to find fragments of the heavenly mass. Aslan says pieces of the meteor have been sold for as much as $60 per gram, to buyers from Russia to the U.S. Dozens of fragments are listed for sale on EBay, at prices of as much as $2,700, by sellers mostly in Germany, Switzerland or France.

Meteorite pieces are valuable because they’re rare,” Derya Surgit, a lecturer in space sciences at Canakkale Onsekiz Mart University in western Turkey, said by phone. “Many branches of science, such as geophysics and astrophysics, are interested in them.”

The meteorites are breakaway chunks of the 4-Vesta asteroid, which hovers between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, Istanbul University’s Ozan Unsalan said by phone. He heads a consortium of 34 scientists, including seven from NASA, who are researching the Saricicek findings.

Unsalan’s university is one of the buyers in the fragments market: it allocated 150,000 liras ($53,000) last month and hopes to purchase about 12 pieces weighing a total of 400 grams, he said.

Is It Taxable?

Zeki Ozel, a 50-year-old construction worker, is keeping his 1-kilogram (2.2-pound) share at home, waiting for a buyer. “The money will help with the education of my three children,” he said by phone.

Ismail Ergun, 37, says he bought a car with his earnings. “I met my needs with the stones I sold to Russians,” he told state-run Anadolu agency on Nov. 12, posing for a photo with pieces of the meteor and his new wheels. “I closed my debt with stones to Austrians, and with the sale to Americans, I bought a car.”

Other residents plan to spend their windfall profits on a pilgrimage to Mecca, according to Aslan, the headman. “Some say they want to open a pastry shop,” he said.

It’s not just scientists and bounty hunters who are interested -- so is Turkey’s taxman. Media reports that residents had earned as much as 1 million liras spurred the Finance Ministry to send a delegation to Saricicek on Nov. 19 to assess whether the sales are taxable, Dogan News Agency reported.

Finance Minister Mehmet Simsek clarified the issue on Nov. 20. “For Bingol residents, selling the meteor pieces isn’t considered a commercial organization” and is not subject to tax, he said, according to Anadolu. Earnings by stone-hunters from other provinces aren’t exempt, though.

‘Cover the Earth’

That should be good news for people like Ozel, the construction worker -- but he said he’s getting fed up with the fuss. “People coming from outside are disturbing us,” he said. “The reporters are, too. Thefts have started. Every man and his dog is coming from as far as Elazig and Mus,” two provinces in eastern Turkey.

The outsiders number as many as 500 at weekends, and many of them prefer stone-hunting at night with torches, Aslan said. “That unsettles the villagers even more.”

“I really regret that this has happened to us,” Ozel said. “I only wish snow would come and cover the earth so no one can find anything.”

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