Photograph courtesy Elmar Buchner

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The "Iron Man" statue's swastika is an ancient symbol of good fortune.

Photograph courtesy Elmar Buchner

Swastika-Bearing Buddhist Statue Was Chiseled From Meteorite

Priceless Tibetan sculpture was once in the hands of Nazis.

Update, October 25: A new paper—citing features inconsitent with Buddha statues, circa A.D. 1000—suggests the statue in question was created in the 20th century. The report does, however, agree that the figure was carved from a meteorite.

Call it a blast from the past. Uncovered by Nazis in Tibet, an ancient Buddhist sculpture turns out to have been carved from a meteorite.

Known as the "Iron Man," the 22-pound (10-kilogram) figure is likely a Buddhist god. Seated, he wears a large swastika on his midsection—a good-luck symbol in Buddhism.

In 1938 a team of Nazis traveling in Tibet came across the statue and—possibly intrigued by the familiar bent-armed cross—brought it back to Germany. There, the "Iron Man" remained in a private collection in Munich until 2007, when the statue became available for study.

Since then, Elmar Buchner of the Planetology Institute at Stuttgart University has been analyzing the Buddhist statue, which is thought to hail from 11th-century Tibet. Buchner says the statue was carved from a meteorite that landed somewhere between Mongolia and Siberia roughly 15,000 years ago.

Among the clues is the sculpture's telltale mineral content and structure, which give it away as a kind of meteorite called an ataxite. "It is rich in nickel, it is rich in cobalt. Less than 0.1 percent of all meteorites and less than 1 percent of iron meteorites are ataxites ... It is the rarest type of meteorite you can find," Buchner told the BBC.

No doubt the figure was dear to the artist who sculpted it, but what is it worth today? Its status as the only known human figure carved from a meteorite may give it a value of $20,000, according to Buchner. But, he said in a statement, "if our estimation of its age is correct and [the sculpting] is nearly a thousand years old, it could be invaluable."

The new study, "Buddha From Space," appears in the September issue of the journal Meteoritics and Planetary Science.