Thursday, January 28, 2010

Who Really Owns the Lorton Meteorite?

Even though I’m not a lawyer, I’ve been sued enough times that I certainly feel like I could be one. I’ve been in several trials, including one that actually sent me to prison. That lawyer was a good friend, and he did his best, but, as they say in the funny papers—I should have hired a better mouthpiece.

There are now lawyers who are going to get into the dispute over who owns the meteorite that fell into a doctor’s office in Lorton, Virginia:

Today’s episode of Everybody’s Favorite Meteorite brings the nation disturbing news: That spunky bit of chondrite that plummeted into a Lorton doctors’ office on Jan. 18, delighting an international audience with news of its fireball entrance, may not go on to a spot of glory in the Smithsonian, after all.

The doctors who were nearly bonked on the head by the thing when it came plummeting from the asteroid belt into Examining Room No. 2 in the Williamsburg Square Family Practice, gave it to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. In return, Smithsonian officials planned to give them $5,000 in appreciation. The doctors, Marc Gallini and Frank Ciampi, planned to donate the money to earthquake relief efforts in Haiti. The Smithsonian planned to put the meteorite on prominent display and study it as a 4.5 billion-year-old postcard from the formation of the solar system.

“We knew meteorite hunters would offer them something for it, and we wanted to be competitive,” said Linda Welzenbach, the meteorite collections manager at the Smithsonian.

But in an extraterrestrial soap opera still unfolding, the landlords of the Virginia building that houses the doctors’ office now say they are the rightful owners of the meteorite. Museum officials said the landlords informed them, midday Thursday, that they were coming to take the stone out of the Smithsonian by sundown.

You heard that right—the landlords are going to try to take ownership of the meteorite.

Gallini and Ciampi hustled to get a lawyer to fire off a letter to the museum, barring them from releasing the stone, pending resolution of ownership.

“The landlords intend to take it,” Gallini said. “It isn’t nice.”

Deniz Mutlu, a member of the family who owns the building, said Thursday afternoon that “it’s staying in the Smithsonian for now, and that’s all I can say.”

His brother and fellow landlord, Erol Mutlu, sent Gallini an e-mail earlier this week, politely demanding the rock be given to the family: “It’s evident that ownership is tied to the landowner. The U.S. courts have ruled that a meteorite becomes part of the land where it arrives through ‘natural cause’ and hence the property of the landowner; the notion of ‘finders keepers’ has been rejected by the Supreme Court of Oregon.”

Now, the Mutlu brothers are probably on the hook for the repairs to the building, unless the insurance covers it. Here’s a link to more than you ever wanted to know about that subject.

In essence though, it’s mean-spirited to take something that is going to be put on display, and it’s especially mean spirited when the doctors paying you rent aren’t going to profit from their find and had planned to turn the appreciation money from the Smithsonian over to Haitian Earthquake Relief. It poisons the well with ALL of your renters, not just the doctors who were renting out space.

If the meteor really might fetch $50,000, what’s that in the long run if you lose two or three renters (including, and especially the doctors) and then have a sullied reputation as a mean-spirited landlord? If you’re trying to make payments on a property or properties, and if you lose three renters, your $50,000 in meteor money is going to come back and bonk you on the head (or bite you in the rear end, as the case may be).

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