Ever since the meteor exploded over the impoverished Siberian town of Deputatskoye last week, Larisa Briyukova wondered what to do with the fist-sized stone she found under a hole in the roof tiles of her woodshed.
On Monday, a stranger knocked on her door, offering the equivalent of about £39, Ms Briyukova said. After some haggling, they settled on £149.
A few hours later, another man pulled up, looked at the hole in the roof and offered the equivalent of £842.
“Now I regret selling it,” said Ms Briyukova, 43, a housewife. “But then, who knows? The police might have come and taken it away anyway.”
Last Friday, terror rained from the skies, blowing out windows and scaring people over an enormous stretch of Siberia. About 1,200 people were injured. But by Monday, for many people what fell from the sky had turned to pure gold.
Many of those out prospecting looked a lot like Sasha Zarezina, eight, who happily plunged into a snowbank in the village, laughing and kicking up plumes of powdery snow. Then she stopped, bent over and dug. “I found one!” she yelled.
A warm breath and a rub on her trousers later, a smooth black pebble, oval and charred, was freed of ice.
While trade in material from meteorites is largely illegal, there is a flourishing global market, with fragments widely available for sale on the internet.
Early on, US space agency NASA reported that the meteor – the largest known celestial body to enter Earth’s atmosphere in 100 years – was an airburst fireball type that would shower thousands of fragments onto the planet’s surface.
In the scramble now under way to find them, residents of towns such as Deputatskoye – founded in the 1920s around a collective dairy farm – are looking for holes in the snow that hold the promise of yielding up polished black rocks.
“All it takes is looking carefully,” said Sasha. “The stones are in the snowdrifts. To find a stone you find a hole. Then you dig.”
The excitement became tinged with anxiety on Monday as unknown cars appeared, bearing men who refused to answer questions but offered stacks of rubles for the fragments.
M3-Media, a financial news site, reported that under Russian law a person can gain legal title to a meteorite, but only if it is reported to the authorities and than submitted to a laboratory for tests.
In practice, though, the search for remnants of the meteor has become an unregulated scramble, lacking co-ordinated effort or scientific oversight. Police blocked scientists from visiting a suspected impact site on Lake Chebarkul at the weekend, Victor Grokhovsky, an assistant professor of metallurgy at Southern Ural Federal University said.
With word of the rising prices rippling through the village, some women refused to speak about what their children might have found. Others expressed fear the police would confiscate the stones – then sell them.
Alexandra Gerasimova, 61, a retired milkmaid, said a meteorite tore a hole in her coat while she watched the lights in the sky.
“I was standing with my husband, and some of it fell on us,” she said. “This rock fell down and into my jacket. I felt it hit me. I looked up, and there was nothing above me … Imagine how frightened I was.”
On Monday, two men showed up and offered to buy her stone. She said: “I didn’t open the door. Why should I sell it? I have a grandson I will give it to.”