The meteorite collection goes back to the earliest history of the Museum. The first meteorite in the collection was a 46g piece of the Searsmont (H5 ordinary chondrite) donated in 1872 by Mr. G.M. Brainerd of Rockville, Maine. In 1874 the Museum purchased the S.C.H. Bailey mineral collection which included eight meteorites. These were displayed in the Old Arsenal Building at 64th St. and Fifth Avenue, the former site of the Museum and now the administrative headquarters of the Parks Department of New York City. In 1883 Mr. R.L. Stuart donated a meteorite from the Atacama desert in Chile. A specimen of the Estherville mesosiderite was obtained in 1885. In 1891, 21 new meteorite falls were obtained with the purchase of the Norman Spang mineral collection. E. O. Hovey published the first catalogue of the collection (1896) in which he listed 55 specimens representing 26 different meteorites.
The importance of the collection was dramatically heightened in 1900 by the purchase of the Clarence S. Bement mineral collection through the generosity of J. P. Morgan. Besides containing 12,000 of the finest mineral specimens ever known, the collection included 580 meteorite specimens representing nearly 500 different falls and finds. This established the AMNH meteorite collection as one of the great collections of the world, and this has been maintained over the years by continual additions. Bement began collecting meteorites in the early 1800's, but his interest waxed and waned. He often purchased and exchanged meteorites with George Kunz, the famed mineral and gem expert who worked at Tiffany's for over 50 years and was an honorary curator at the Museum for 14 years. Kunz had an active interest in meteorites and from 1885 to 1891 described numerous meteorites from the United States.
In 1904 a major addition was made when three massive Cape York (IIIA) iron meteorites, brought back from Greenland by the explorer R.E. Peary in 1897, came to the Museum. These specimens are known from Eskimo folklore as "The Tent" or Ahnighito, "The Woman" and "The Dog". Ahnighito is the largest at 11 ft. long, 7 ft. high, and 6 ft. thick, and weighs 68,080 lbs. or 34 tons (avoirdupois). The Woman weighs 3 tons and The Dog weighs 896 lbs. The Ahnighito mass is the largest in any Museum and thus the largest in "captivity". The specimens were purchased in 1909 by Mrs. Morris K. Jessup, wife of a past president of the Museum.
In 1905 the meteorite collection of George Kunz was purchased for the Museum by J. P. Morgan. This added 186 new falls and finds. It was complemented in 1906 by the purchase of the magnificent 15.5 ton Willamette (IIIA) iron meteorite by Mrs. William E. Dodge. The Willamette was found in 1902 near Oregon City in Clackamas Co., Oregon, and is the largest meteorite found in the United States. Aside from its size, the striking features of this meteorite are its well-developed nose-cone shape and its deeply pitted rear surface. The pits and grooves were produced by weathering of the exposed surface of the meteorite in the wet Oregon climate.
The Chester A. Reeds catalogue (1937) listed about 3,500 samples representing 546 meteorites, and the Brian Mason catalogue (1964) had about 4,000 specimens representing 850 different meteorites. At the present time, the collection consists of approximately 5,000 specimens representing about 1,255 different meteorites. Of these, about 155 meteorites are on display in the newly renovated Arthur Ross Hall of Meteorites . In recent years the focus has been on acquiring new and scientifically important specimens; carbonaceous chondrites, enstatite chondrites, unequilibrated ordinary chondrites, iron meteorites with silicate inclusions, mesosiderites, pallasites and rare achondrites such as brachinites and ureilites are of special interest. The collection is on an electronic database and a copy is available upon request to researchers, serious collectors and dealers.
- Hovey, E.O. (1896) Catalogue of meteorites in the collections of the American Museum of Natural History, to July 1, 1896. Bull. Amer. Mus. Nat. Hist. 8, 149-156.
- Mason, B. (1964) The meteorite and tektite collection of the American Museum of Natural History. Amer. Mus. Novitates 2190, 40p.
- Reeds, C.A. (1935) Catalogue of meteorites in the American Museum of Natural History, as of October 1, 1935. Bull. Amer. Mus. Nat. Hist. 73, 517-672.