[meteorite-list] Hupe Brothers Hunt World for Meteorites

From: Ron Baalke <baalke_at_meteoritecentral.com>
Date: Tue Jul 6 18:16:49 2004
Message-ID: <200407062216.PAA08831_at_zagami.jpl.nasa.gov>


They're after what's rocking our world

Brothers hunt world for meteorites -- and now they're here

July 6, 2004

TACOMA -- In search of space booty, the Hupe brothers have bartered with
Bedouins, scoured the Sahara, jet-trotted halfway across America on a
moment's notice, bankrolls in hand.

But the Hupes' latest meteorite hunt zooms in right here at home.

The two brothers want a piece of the action from the stunning June 3
meteor show, a booming flash-dance over Snohomish that turned night to day.

They aren't alone. Three teams from three states are working the fall,
trying to trace the trajectory of the meteor, and the site where it may,
possibly, have deposited a bit of exotic and -- if discovered -- pricey
debris from outer space.

"The meteor fell on my birthday, and it's in my own back yard. It's
ridiculous!" says Adam Hupe, 42. He's 11 months older than Greg and
equally excitable when talking falling space rocks.

The brothers, overgrown Hardy Boys who sold a multimillion-dollar
computer company to focus on their hobby, have amassed one of the
world's largest private collections of meteorites in a few short years.

"They're relatively new to the scene, but they've rather quickly become
major players," says Robert Matson, a respected space scientist working
out of Seal Beach, Calif.

Most of the Hupes' specimens come from North African desert lands, and
some are worth thousands more than their weight in gold. But the
brothers have no Washington space specimens.

No surprise. An estimated 13,000 meteors fall to our planet each year.
Yet only five scientifically recognized meteorites have ever been found
in our state.

"Believe me," says Adam, "once the first confirmed piece shows up here,
I'm all over it -- we both are."

The Hupes, who'll be featured in an upcoming Outside magazine profile,
are local go-to guys for hopeful earthlings bearing strange black rocks.
And they have already fielded some duds from our June fireworks show.

Callers reported weird piles of rocks that suddenly appeared in
Shoreline after the June 3 streaker. They turned out to be road gravel.
A big black chunk found near Sea-Tac was asphalt -- more terrestrial ho-hum.

"You have to tell these people gingerly, let them down slowly," says Greg.

"They get so excited," says Adam.

The Hupes (pronounced "Who-pays") grew up as the only boys among six
children. They were buddies from the get-go.

"Were we close? Yeah!" says Adam.

"Oh, yeah," says Greg, head nodding.

They began treasure hunting in earnest at ages 11 and 12, when their
father, an Army general, gave them their first metal detector, used to
dig up centuries-old treasures in old buildings. The two call meteorite
hunting "the ultimate treasure hunt."

Greg and Adam were in their 20s when they launched a computer hardware
business in their mother's basement and garage. By the time they retired
at 37 and 38, they had turned it into the multimillion-dollar-a-year
enterprise called Computer Performance.

The Hupes had all the boy toys -- homes, sleek cars, RVs, boats -- and
no time to use them. Weary of long hours and constant pressure, they
cashed out just before the stock market collapsed, dumped the "stuff"
and turned their attention to the hunt.

Currently, Adam lives in a tiny, bare-bones apartment near Point
Defiance Park in Tacoma. Greg is headed out to Florida in a U-Haul truck
he bought at a bargain rate, with plans to hunt treasure from sunken
galleons and search fossils. They're both single, and if heaven falls,
travel-ready in an instant.

Insiders say the Hupes have brought a new business sensibility to the
collection of meteorites. They invest serious money in their North
African expeditions, hire dealers who speak Berber dialects to recruit
nomad hunters, and offer sizable rewards for discoveries.

When not overseas themselves, they communicate with dealers via e-mail
and cell phone, which is how they learned about the discovery of half a
martian rock. They called their dealer, told him to send out nomads to
find the other part. When their man had Part Two in hand, Greg hopped a
30-hour flight, met him at the airport, and tried to subdue his
eagerness as he fit the pieces together.

The two had a code phrase -- "The eagle has landed" -- to confirm the fit.

When Greg uttered it, Adam began to whoop and holler.

"And I had to remain calm and composed!" says Greg. "If they know you're
excited, you won't get it."

Meteors from asteroids are relatively common. But the brothers' chunk of
the Red Planet is one of only 31 confirmed martians on record. There are
also 31 confirmed finds from the moon.

The Hupes have prized pieces from both, including the coveted "Desert
Lady," so-called because the large lunar rock passed through so many
hands before they acquired it.

A single thin slice of that white-and-gray moon meteorite listed on the
Bonhams and Butterfields auction site at $45,000 to $65,000. It sold for
even more.

"Once you pull something like that, you're addicted," says Adam.

"It's life-changing," says Greg.

Collectors elbow out scientists

Meteorites have always excited the human imagination. Each is a story,
an ancient telling of planetary origins that stirs big-think philosophizing.

"You're holding something billions of years old in your hand. You're
holding the oldest material in the solar system -- the beginning of time
as we know it," says Greg.

The thrill of the find hasn't changed, but the market surrounding it has
transformed dramatically.

A half-century ago, the leading collector in the country drove around
Arizona in a beat-up pickup, with a giant magnet strapped underneath.

Today, private dealers trade hundreds of specimens on eBay and
billions-year-old space rocks pull million-dollar prices in heady
collecting circles. The lure of loot has set off a modern-day gold rush,
with Indiana Jones adventurers scouting far corners of the Earth,
aggressive dealers cutting secret deals for specimens, and collectors
paying stratospheric prices for crumbs of planetary crusts.

The Hupes -- who say they only occasionally sell meteorites, and only to
support their habit -- are in the thick of the collecting fray, ready to
act in an eye blink.

Last year, Adam had a flight booked to Illinois 10 minutes after
learning a meteorite had crashed through the roof of a police and fire
station outside Chicago. He set up shop in front of the station, working
out of a rental car trunk, cash in hand. In a TV interview, he told
viewers with fresh finds to "bring 'em on in" -- he'd be the one in
front of the station in the yellow jacket.

Some 30 other dealers and collectors from around the globe were right
behind him. "Competitors saw it on the news. The next day, they all
showed up in yellow jackets," says Adams. Prices quickly escalated from
$1 to $2 a gram to $20.

Scientists have conflicting opinions about the current "Wild West" scene
surrounding meteorites.

It's true, they say, that more hunters, more dealers, more collectors,
mean more uncovered meteoritic material. But it's also true that prime
specimens are not always available for scientific study, that many lack
adequate field documentation, and most are priced beyond reach of
cash-strapped academics.

"Unfortunately, because of all the collectors, the cost has gone really
high. That's a problem for researchers and museums trying to compete,"
says Don Brownlee, noted astronomy professor at the UW.

Reputable collectors like the Hupes rely on scientists to verify their
samples. In turn, they make a point of donating pieces of rare finds to
them. "When a researcher asks us to buy material, we won't charge them,
because they are enhancing the value of our collection by studying it,"
says Adam.

"If they want it for personal reasons, we'll do a trade."

Not everyone takes the high ground. So-called "cowboy" hunters often
flaunt collecting laws. "There are some shady people out there. They may
say things fell on their property, when it fell on public property ...
or they may take things out of countries that have restrictions on
collecting," says John Schutt, a geologist and professional
mountaineering guide in Bellingham who, for years, has been recovering
meteorites in Antarctica for scientific study.

Spotting meteorites on wind-swept, bare blue ice is relatively easy. The
Antarctic teams drive back and forth in snowmobiles and look for dark

"They're just everywhere," says Schutt. "We've found upward of 3,000 to
4,000 in relatively restricted areas."

Spotting meteorites around the Puget Sound area is another matter.

Meteorites hide themselves well in a wet green landscape dense with
trees and scrub and littered with dark rocks. And they can quickly turn
to rust in the rain -- in a geological time frame.

"Western Washington is the worst place to find one," says Tony Irving,
lecturer in earth and space sciences at the UW. "Unless this one hit
something or came through a roof, it's going to be tough."

Tough, but tantalizing. "Anytime you have a sonic boom like that, the
chance of having surviving meteorites is pretty high," says UW
astronomer Brownlee, who estimates the June 3 meteor was "bigger than a

The UW represents one of three teams currently tracking the June 3 fall.
Scientists there have used seismographs to place the meteor explosion
about six miles northeast of Snohomish.

A Portland team is interviewing witnesses and triangulating their
accounts of the event, attempting to pinpoint the site.

A team from California is using camera images and interviews to track
the trajectory. "It's a little like forensics," says Matson, a principal
investigator on the team. "You have to figure out what's real, what's
right, what's wrong."

His team has already sent meteorite hunters to an undisclosed site east
of Snohomish.

After a week, they came back empty-handed, reporting difficulties with
thick vegetation and scanty road access.

The Hupes are eagerly monitoring all three teams' work.

"What we're doing is riding all the teams," says Adam. "We told them,
whoever finds the first legitimate piece, we're part of that team."

Behind them, expect an alien horde of hunters, dealers and collectors to
descend, hot on their trail.


Unlike ordinary terrestrial rocks, meteorites typically have a dark
fusion crust, from their burning plunge into the Earth's atmosphere.
Many also have elemental iron, not native to our planet, which quickly
rusts in the uncongenially moist climate of the Northwest. About 90
percent of meteorites are attracted to magnets.
Received on Tue 06 Jul 2004 06:16:33 PM PDT

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