RACHEL MARTIN, host:
So today is a big day for Marvin Killgore. If all goes as planned, the plumber-turned-meteorite hunter will see the most prized piece in his personal meteorite collection auctioned off at Bonham's for nearly three million dollars. That's a lot of money.
MIKE PESCA, host:
He hopes. Yeah.
MARTIN: Six months ago, a similar auction failed to find a buyer for two pricey meteorites. But Marvin says his space rock is different. It's special. It's the Fukang Meteorite, named after the town in China near where the meteorite was found. But what makes it special? What makes any meteorite special? And how does a plumber end up collecting them?
Marvin Killgore is here in our studio along with his wife Kitty. Thank you both for joining us. Marvin is also the curator of the University of Arizona's Southwest Meteorite Center, so he knows what he's talking about. Marvin, let's begin at the beginning. How does one transition from a life as a plumber to becoming a meteorite hunter and collector?
Mr. MARVIN KILLGORE (Curator, Southwest Meteorite Center, University of Arizona): How many hours do we have?
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: We don't have one. It was a long story, I imagine.
Mr. KILLGORE: It's a little involved.
MARTIN: Is this something that you'd been interested in for awhile as a hobby? So you were making your money as a plumber and every once in awhile you would find some time to look for meteorite?
Mr. KILLGORE: Well, in the plumbing business, as a contractor, it's a feast or famine type business. So sometimes you have a lot of business and sometimes you don't have any. And we have, in Arizona where we live, we live in the mountains, and we get quite a bit of snow sometimes in the wintertime.
And we would have a couple of months that we didn't have any work because it was all snow, and we didn't have any new houses starting. So I started going out and looking for gold nuggets with a metal detector to pay the bills, and we could usually go out for a week or two and pay the bills for a couple of months, and that got us by.
MARTIN: You were looking over a lot of rocks while you were you're doing that.
Mr. KILLGORE: Yeah, and you know, we found things with our metal detector and we thought, this isn't gold, so we threw it away. And one time I was selling some gold to a gold buyer and he said, you should look for meteorites. And I said, what's that? What're they? And he brought one out and said, here, take this meteorite and try that with your metal detector.
I'll buy them from you, they're worth money. And so, I thought, well, I've seen these before. And I went out to places that we'd thrown stuff like that and started finding some of the meteorites and brought them back to the guy, and he actually said, well, I really can't buy any right now. I'm kind of backed up.
And I said, OK, well, what am I going to do with it? I started thinking, well, maybe a university might be interested in it. So I called the University of California in Los Angeles and said, does anybody there know anything about meteorites? And they put me in touch with the guy that's in charge of the meteorites there.
PESCA: How did you think of UCLA, living there in Arizona?
Mr. KILLGORE: Actually, we had kind of struggled along, just kind of keeping our head above water for several years and decided that we were just kind of going to take the plunge, decided that we would hock everything that we had, put everything together that we could and take a trip to Australia and try to find enough gold to do really well, since we did pretty well part time. We decided to just take a six-month trip. We had an eight-month-old baby and a nine-year-old son.
Mrs. KITTY KILLGORE: That was in 1990.
Mr. KILLGORE: That was in 1990. And so, we were getting ready to leave and we were in Los Angeles and I had all of these meteorites with me.
Mr. KILLGORE: And so this friend of mine that asked me to start hunting meteorites lived in Palm Springs and that was halfway. And so I showed up in L.A. and I thought, well, UCLA.
MARTIN: Sure. But you then started studying this. You got really into it. You have become now an expert on this. We need to, before we go any further in the conversation, edumacate (ph) ourselves a little bit between the differences on a meteor and a meteorite, because I admit to not knowing - I didn't know the difference until we started doing research for this. Explain to us the difference.
Mr. KILGORE: A meteor is a streak in the sky. It's a shooting star, basically. And those shooting stars can be anything from a fleck of dust to a great big piece of rock or even a piece of a satellite can be a meteor, but a piece of rock that actually survives entry and lands on the Earth is a product of that meteor and it's called a meteorite.
MARTIN: And let's talk about what's happening today. The meteorite in your possession, it's called the Fukang Meteorite. Why is this piece so special?
Mr. KILGORE: Well, I've been around the world, and I've seen most of the public collections, and a major portion of the private collections in the world. And looking at all the thousands and thousands of specimens, this one totally outshines any other meteorite I've ever seen. It is the most spectacular thing to stand next to it and just look at it.
MARTIN: It literally outshines other things. I mean, it's shiny.
Mr. KILGORE: Well, it's 50 percent nickel-iron and 50 percent parado (ph), the gemstone parado.
MARTIN: Which is kind of green?
Mr. KILGORE: Yeah. It's kind of yellow-green. In meteorites, it's a little bit different than terrestrial parado, but it's really - it's just gorgeous to stand and look at it. It's got these crystals that are four, five, inches in diameter and single crystals up to about an inch and a half in diameter, and depending on what angle you look at it you see different things.
You see it flash. You know, you see how it picks up the light and you see colors from red to blue to green, orange, you know, almost every color of the rainbow you can actually see in it if you stand and look at the thing, so yes, it's a fabulous piece.
MARTIN: Is there any scientific value to this thing? Can you learn anything about science by looking at this?
Mr. KILGORE: All meteorites teach us things about the formation of the solar system, especially in that what meteorites are is some of them - some of them are parts of asteroids of planets that have been blasted apart by cosmic impact. Some of them are actually remnants of planets or asteroids that are still forming.
But with things like the Fukang Meteorite, the Fukang Meteorite represents the core metal boundary of its parent body, and that parent body was apparently ripped apart by some cosmic impact or something like that.
PESCA: Do we say how big is the whole thing?
MARTIN: It's nearly a thousand pounds, right? How physically large is it?
Mr. KILGORE: Well, physically it weighted about a thousand kilograms, so it weighed 2300 pounds and we cut in half, OK, and this is the largest remaining portion of it. That's what we call the main mass. The cut face on it is 36 inches wide by 18 inches high and it's got a thickness of about 18 inches.
PESCA: So that means it's incredibly dense to get that kind of weight?
Mr. KILGORE: It's very, very heavy. Meteorites are pretty much heavy material.
MARTIN: Now, you did not find this with your little metal detector.
Mr. KILGORE: Actually, I bought this piece from the person who found it.
MARTIN: And that person was in China, right?
Mr. KILGORE: Right.
MARTIN: And can I ask you how much you paid for it?
Mr. KILGORE: You can, but I won't answer.
MARTIN: You're not going to tell me!
Mr. KILGORE: I paid a lot of money. I set what I believe is the record up until now. If it sells today, that'll set a new record.
PESCA: And this money to the guy in China, was he a wealthy man? Was he just a poor farmer? What did he do with the money?
Mr. KILGORE: Well, the average wage in China for just a working person is about five to ten dollars a day. This guy was a little above working level. He was an engineer and made 25 dollars a day. So, he got many, many years worth of salary out of this one meteorite.
MARTIN: So, what are you hoping is going to come from today? I mean, this potentially could be a lot of money, right? But there are a couple of big-profile - two meteorites were at auction six months ago and didn't sell at all. Are you nervous that there won't be any buyers today?
Mr. KILGORE: Well, you know, I guess the main thing is that we made a decision based on knowing the rock and based on what it is.
MARTIN: It's a risk, though. You spent a lot of money, of your own money, on this.
Mr. KILGORE: That's true. I have. And it's a gamble, yeah, it's a gamble to come here and just make the trip. I drove here. I brought the thing in my own truck because I didn't want to ship it, and...
PESCA: Imagine getting pulled over, saying, what's that in your trunk, sir?
MARTIN: It was in the back in the bed of a truck?
Mr. KILGORE: Yeah. It was in my pickup. So, I drove all the way across from Arizona to here with that in the back of my pickup.
MARTIN: Were you guys looking back all the time? Were you going, is it still there?
PESCA: I've driven across country with a dog.
MARTIN: It could go flying out.
Mr. KILGORE: Well, yeah, if you slam on the breaks, it goes cha-ching.
MARTIN: Yeah. So, if it does sell for what you want, for millions of dollars that Bonham's is asking, what will that do for your life? That's a lot of money.
Mr. KILGORE: Well, basically, it buys us freedom. We - at this point, you know, we've acquired a lot of pieces of property, several pieces of property, and we have to pay payments on those, and so we're kind of nose to the grind and have been for quite awhile, several years now, and we just don't have the freedom to do the things that we really want to do, like our grandkids are growing up without us even seeing them.
MARTIN: Where are they?
Mr. KILGORE: They're in California, and you know, one, our granddaughter is five years old. Our grandson's almost three and we get to see them about every two or three months for two or three days. I would like to...
MARTIN: So, if you got this money would you move there?
Mr. KILGORE: I don't think I would move there. In fact, I'm sure I wouldn't move there. But, maybe I might move them to me.
MARTIN: Put a little more flexibility in your life?
Mr. KILGORE: Yes. More flexibility. We, at one time, actually had flexibility. Back in 1990, we were able to just hock everything and drop everything for six months and head for the outback in Australia.
Mrs. KILGORE: It's become increasingly difficult to do that.
Mr. KILGORE: Right, we don't have the freedom, and so we were looking around saying, you know, we really have to rearrange our priorities and to rearrange those priorities you kind of look around and say OK, how can we do this? Well, if we've got one piece that we can sell, we have more than 30,000 specimens in our private collection of meteorites.
MARTIN: And this is the most precious one, so I imagine that this will be bittersweet if you have to say goodbye to it.
Mr. KILGORE: Absolutely. We'll never get anything like this again. We call it the meteorite of great prize.
MARTIN: Well, Marvin and Kitty Kilgore, thanks so much for coming in. You really need to see this meteorite to appreciate its beauty and we do have some pictures of it. We're going to put those on our website and our blog. You can go there, npr.org/bryantpark. Hey, good luck to both of you. I think we're probably going to follow up. We want to see what happens after today. We wish you all the best of luck.
Mrs. KILGORE: Great. Thank you.
Mr. KILGORE: Thank you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.