Irina Tumilovich, RAPSI

Fragments of a meteorite which fell in the Chelyabinsk Region in mid-February have surfaced on eBay. Although sales of the meteorite fragments are brisk, Russian lawyers have not yet decided whether or not this trade is legal. Moreover, they are continuing to debate whether meteorite fragments should be classified as mushrooms, treasure, or cultural landmarks. Depending on this classification, sellers and buyers alike could be brought to account, and may even face criminal charges.

No problems

The overwhelming majority of Russian lawyers believe that meteorites can be sold and resold at the domestic level. At any rate, it is not explicitly prohibited by any single legal act.

Russian law, including Paragraph 2 of Article 129 of the Civil Code of the Russian Federation, expressly states that the relevant legislation must list specific objects whose sales are banned. But meteorites don’t appear to have made it on to any black lists.

It is therefore possible to conclude that a meteorite fragment that is located in the Russian Federation is among those objects that can be sold, according to attorney Ruslan Koblev.

“There is no legal ban on sales. Consequently, any person who has found the meteorite owns it and has the right to do anything they like with it. They can sell the meteorite, give it to others or keep it at home,” Koblev believes.

In his opinion, the meteorite can be legally equated with mushrooms, berries, fish and other objects that can be picked or otherwise collected, and which, according to Article 221 of the Civil Code of the Russian Federation, are owned by the people who found them.

Lina Taltseva, a senior legal analyst with the Korelsky, Ishchuk, Astafyev & Partners, agrees.

“If a meteorite is not a life-threatening object, if it is not a health hazard, if it has no scientific value, and if it does not contain precious and non-ferrous metals, then under Article 221 of the Civil Code of the Russian Federation it becomes the property of the person who found it,” says Taltseva.

Nikolai Andrianov, a senior lawyer with the VEGAS LEX firm, supports his colleagues, saying that if meteorites are covered by this provision then someone who has found a meteorite automatically becomes its owner. 

An alternative opinion

However, some lawyers are confident that the meteorite can be included among cultural landmarks, citing a Ministry of Culture order which contains regulations regarding the export of cultural-heritage objects from the Russian Federation.

The document – dated August 7, 2001 – classifies samples and collections of materials, ores and natural non-crystal substances of terrestrial and extraterrestrial origin, including meteorites, as precious cultural objects requiring special export licenses.

Although this order has now been annulled, some lawyers doubt that meteorites have lost their status as precious cultural objects. In this connection, they are warning against attempts to sell the objects abroad without the required permission.

Sergei Gorbachev, a managing partner with the Legis Group law firm, says that under Danish and Swiss legislation all meteorites which have been found should be transferred to research agencies or to a museum. Although Russian legislation says nothing about this, there is another restriction.
If a meteorite has been found in the ground, and if it contains precious metals, then it can be classed as treasure. “In this case, the meteorite should be divided equally between the owner of the land where the treasure was concealed and the person who found the treasure,” Gorbachev explains.

If the meteorite is recognized as a historical or cultural landmark, then it should be transferred to the state, with the owner of the land and the treasure's finder receiving 50% of the value of the treasure in compensation.

Who owns the meteorite?

Before 1917, under the 1832 Code of Laws of the Russian Empire all meteorites falling in Russia were owned by the state. However, modern law says nothing directly about the legal status of meteorites and their fragments.

The Federal Law on Mineral Resources is the only Russian legal act to mention meteorites, Professor Oleg Krassov, DSc (Law), from the Law Department of Moscow State University told RAPSI.

However, even this law only mentions meteorites in one of its 52 articles, namely Article 33 of the Federal Law on Mineral Resources. “Should geological and mineralogical objects, meteorites, paleontological, archeological and other objects of interest to science or culture be discovered during the development of mineral resources, then all operations are to be suspended and licensing agencies notified,” the article states.

At the same time, the clause which lists all mineral deposits as state property, as well as a clause stipulating rewards for various finds, says nothing about meteorites.

Nevertheless, Krassov believes that it would be logical to suppose that in any case, a celestial body is the property of the state.

“A meteorite is considered to be located underground, and the state owns mineral resources. Under Article 1.2 of the Federal Law on Mineral Resources, mineral resources located on Russian territory, including underground, energy and other resources, are owned by the state. This means that fallen meteorites also amount to state property. Fallen meteorites should be protected,” Krassov noted.

Therefore, a meteorite which has been found at a crash site or on a private land plot does not belong to a private individual, who therefore has no right to sell the meteorite or its fragments.

Russia’s civil law experts believe that it is impossible to trade in meteorites because of problems with determining their owner and also due to the fact that celestial bodies, even those which have fallen to Earth, are not subject to civil law relations.

Lawyers issue warning

Although Russian legislation ignores meteorites almost completely, their buyers and sellers may be brought to account, and they may also face criminal charges, lawyers warn.

Those selling real meteorite fragments may be charged with illegal business activities under Article 171 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation and could face a term of imprisonment of up to five years. Problems may arise if the transaction “has incurred major losses for individuals, organizations or the state, or if it is linked with the generation of large-scale incomes.” The legislator sets large-scale incomes at a minimum of 1.5 million rubles. This enables real meteorites to be sold for 1,499,000 rubles or less without any legal repercussions.

Theoretically speaking, meteorite fragments could be radioactive. In that case, sellers could face a term of imprisonment of up to two years under Part 1 of Article 220 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation (“illegal handling of nuclear materials or radioactive substances”).  If a meteorite has caused negative health effects, then the concerned parties could be prosecuted in accordance with an article from Chapter 16 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation (“crimes against life and health”).

Anyone selling boulders as meteorites could be prosecuted under Article 159 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation (“fraud or the theft of someone else’s property through deception”).

If a lot has been auctioned off for less than 1,000 rubles, then the culprits will be liable under Article 7.27 of the Code of Administrative Offenses of the Russian Federation (“petty theft”). Under this article, they will have to pay a fine of more than five times the value of the stolen property, but not less than 1,000 rubles. Or the culprits could face administrative arrest for up to 15 days.

Therefore everything depends on the actual circumstances of each individual transaction.