Even the brilliant economist, Simon Kuzents who wrote about modern economic growth, might be perplexed that his Nobel Prize Medal sold at auction this week for $390,000. The 200 grams of 23-karat gold from which the medal is cast is worth $8,700. Since the buyer was not disclosed, the question remains, who wants to own another man’s award?
In a meritocracy, awards are handed out stingily. But if you have the money, you can even buy your own Nobel Prize.
The father of the Nobel Peace Prize, Alfred Nobel, invented dynamite and amassed a huge fortune from his 355 inventions.
In 1888, Alfred Nobel was shocked to read his own obituary in a French newspaper. The headline read: “The Merchant of Death is Dead.” Though the paper had confused Nobel with his brother Ludvig, the obituary inspired Nobel to change his will and to establish a foundation that would award a series of prizes to those who confer the “greatest benefit on mankind.” Nobel died in 1896 and his Nobel Foundation has been awarding annual prizes in physics, chemistry, medicine, literature, peace and, more recently, economic sciences ever since.
Since 1901, the Nobel Foundation has awarded Nobel Prizes to 860 people and 22 organizations. Along with a gold medal, each recipient receives a diploma and a million dollars.
Only a handful of Nobel Prize medals have been sold at auction. The hammer price has ranged from $17,000 in 1985 for Randal Cremer’s 1903 Nobel Peace Prize to $4.1 million in 2014 for James Dewey Watson’s 1962 Nobel Prize in Medicine for his co-discovery of DNA.
Few of the medals are sold by their recipients. Niels Bohr (1922 Nobel Prize in Physics) and August Krog (1920 Nobel Prize in Physics) both auctioned their own medals in 1940 to raise money for Finnish Relief during the Winter War. The anonymous buyer donated the medals to the Danish Historical Museum of Fredrikborg. James Dewey Watson (1962 Nobel Prize in Physics for co-discovery of DNA) also auctioned his own medal after negative comments about African intelligence caused a significant drop in his income.
Russian Billionaire Alisher Usmanov bought the medal and returned it to Watson. Usmanov declared the medal should stay with its rightful owner and that the funds should be used for scientific research. Pre-auction, Watson had mentioned he hoped to use the funds to buy a David Hockney painting.
Francis Crick’s family decided to auction his medal after it had been locked away for 50 years. Crick’s 1962 Nobel Prize in Medicine (for his co-discovery of DNA structure) sold for $2.27 million in 2013. The purchaser was Jack Wang, CEO of Biomobie, a regenerative medicine technology company located in Silicon Valley and Shanghai. He made the purchase to inspire those working at Biomobie.
Carlos Saavedra Lamas’s 1936 Nobel Peace Prize was discovered in a South American pawn shop. Lamas had received the award for negotiating the end of war between Bolivia and Paraguay. It sold for $1.6 million in 2014.
Some Nobel Prize recipients have gone to great lengths to keep their medals out of other’s hands. In 1940, after the Nazis had taken Copenhagen, Laureates Max Von Laue and James Franck smuggled their medals to the Bohr Institute where the gold was dissolved in aqua regia, a mixture of hydrochloric acid and nitric acid. The dissolved medals remained untouched on a laboratory shelf. After the war, the chemistry was reversed; the raw gold extracted and sent to Stockholm to be recast.