LONDON - The Natural History Museum has been accused of selling a fragment of one of Britain's most prized meteorites to cash in on a boom in demand for cosmic items.
Conservation authorities in South Africa are said to be shocked at the sale of the Koue Bokkeveld or CM2 meteorite, which crashed into the Cape Province in 1838.
It was offered for sale on the internet as part of a thriving market in meteorites, in which rocks from Mars are among the most popular buys.
Mike Farmer, an international meteorite dealer, offered a 4g fragment of Koue Bokkeveld to a Sunday newspaper in South Africa for R8 000 ($2300). Farmer said he had obtained the item from the Natural History Museum.
Dr Monica Grady, head of the meteoritics division at the Natural History Museum, told the South African Sunday Times that the museum had traded a fragment of Koue Bokkeveld with Farmer, but she added: "As far as I am aware, this is not a case of South African meteorites being offered for sale illegally."
The meteorite fell to Earth at 9am on October 13 1838.
Its total weight before impact has never been calculated, and most of the fragments have since been lost, with those remaining held in museums.
Sale of meteorite remains is banned under South African law, but Koue Bokkeveld fragments are advertised on Farmer's website under the heading "Mike's Meteorites and Space Stamps".
It states that virtually all the pieces of the "great historic fall" are in museums which will not sell them, and urges buyers: "If you want a rare and historical meteorite, this is the one!"
The South African Heritage Resources Agency, which was established last year, is strictly interpreting laws preventing the sale of the country's artefacts. It is cracking down on all illegal sales.