9.8 How come the Moon rock donated to Holland is fake?

IN A NUTSHELL: Because it’s not a NASA Moon rock. Everything points to a mistake or to a hoax orchestrated by two Dutch artists in 2006. NASA has never authenticated the “rock” (there are no documents tracing its origins), it’s far too big to be a donated lunar sample, and its background story is nonsensical. It was reportedly donated privately in 1969 to a retired prime minister instead of being given, as was customary, to a representative of the then-current Dutch government; it wasn’t put on public display as a Moon rock would have deserved; and real donated Moon rocks were encapsulated in transparent plastic, while this one is not.*

* I am indebted to Diego Cuoghi for sharing his research into many of the details of this story.

THE DETAILS: In August 2009, several media outlets began reporting that the curators of the Dutch national museum in Amsterdam, the Rijksmuseum, had discovered that an exhibit that had been presented for years as an Apollo 11 Moon rock was actually a chunk of petrified wood (Figure 9-11).

Figure 9-11. The fake “Moon rock” and its descriptive plaque.

The reports stated that the alleged Moon rock had been donated on October 9, 1969 by J. W. Middendorf II, who was the US ambassador to the Netherlands at the time, to former Dutch prime minister, Willem Drees, during the world tour of the Apollo 11 astronauts following their historic mission. When Drees died, in 1988, the item was reportedly put on display in the museum.

However, in 2006 Arno Wielders, a physicist and aerospace entrepreneur, saw it and warned the museum that it was highly unlikely that NASA had donated such a large, priceless Moon rock just three months after returning from the Moon and before any further samples were brought back by later Apollo flights.

The investigation conducted in 2009 by Xandra Van Gelder, chief editor of the museum’s Oog magazine, confirmed that the exhibit was a fake. Van Gelder reported that NASA hadn’t authenticated the specific item but had merely stated that it was likely that the Netherlands had received a Moon rock, since the US had donated small samples to over 100 countries in the early 1970s. In actual fact, the real Dutch Moon rock was at the Boerhaave museum.

The fakery, if intended, wasn’t particularly subtle. The alleged Moon rock was huge, about 55 by 20 millimeters (2.2 by 0.8 inches), compared to the tiny samples usually donated to foreign countries by the United States. The reddish color of the item was completely different from the usual color of lunar samples. Petrologist Wim van Westrenen, of the Amsterdam Free University, reported that he was immediately aware that something was wrong. Spectroscopic and microscopic inspection of a fragment found quartz and cell-like structures typical of petrified wood. Also, real samples were encapsulated in plastic and accompanied by a flag and an inscription that clearly identified them as Moon rocks (Figure 9-12), whereas the descriptive plaque of the fake doesn’t even say it’s a lunar sample and spells center with an incongruous British spelling (centre).

Van Gelder also noted that the history of the item was suspicious. Real samples would be donated to the people of a country through a representative of the then-current government, not to a former prime minister who in 1969 had been out of office for eleven years. The US ambassador explained that he had received the exhibit from the US State Department, but he could not recall the details of the matter.

Figure 9-12. At the top, encapsulated in clear plastic, a genuine sample of Moon rock donated to the Netherlands by the US. Credit: Museumboerhaave.nl.

Another questionable issue is the fact that such a rare and important item surfaced only during an “art exhibition” organized in 2006 by Rotterdam artists Liesbeth Bik and Jos van der Pol and not during a science-oriented event. The exhibition was rather tongue-in-cheek, since it asked visitors what they thought of the museum’s plans to open an exhibition center on the Moon. However, it is true that on October 9, 1969 the Apollo 11 astronauts were in Amsterdam on an official visit.

Figure 9-13. The “Moon rock” as shown in the Rijksmuseum catalog (where it was classified as fake).

All this leads to two likely scenarios. Perhaps the item was indeed donated by the US ambassador to the former prime minister during the visit of the Apollo 11 astronauts and was misidentified by him or his family as a Moon rock instead of a sample from a petrified forest of the United States. That would explain the ambassador’s donation to a politician no longer in office: J. W. Middendorf II would have been at liberty to procure and donate a piece of petrified wood from his home state, for example. If so, when Drees died, his family bequeathed the item to the Rijksmuseum in good faith.

Another possibility is that the two Dutch artists knowingly or unwittingly used a piece of petrified wood as a stand-in for a Moon rock for their exhibition and the item was later mislabeled as a genuine Moon rock. An intentional hoax might explain the fact that they reported in 2007 that “in a drawer they saw a very small rock with a note with it. On that note it said that this stone came from the moon.” Yet the photographs of the note show that it doesn’t say that the stone is a lunar specimen.

Either way, it is unquestionable that the item was not formally authenticated by NASA and that anyone arguing that this is evidence of faking the trips to the Moon would have to explain why the perpetrators of a conspiracy on which the worldwide standing of the US depended would be so dumb as to manufacture such a crude and easily detectable fake.