J. D. Watson to sell his Nobel Prize medal

November 26, 2014 • 11:11 am

CNN reports that James D. Watson, who in 1962 got the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (along with Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins) for revealing the structure of DNA, is selling his Prize medal in an auction:

The coveted gold medal is expected to go under the hammer for up to $3.5 million in a sale at Christie’s in New York on December 4.

It will be the first time a Nobel Prize has been sold by a living recipient.

. . . The scientist’s notes for his acceptance speech at the Nobel ceremony in Stockholm and the manuscript of his Nobel lecture are also on offer at the auction.

At first I couldn’t understand why he’d sell it, as he’s 85 and isn’t exactly at the age where he needs a Ferrari (nor is he poor by any means!), but the article explains:

Watson says he intends to use part of the money raised by the sale to fund projects at the universities and scientific research institutions he has worked at throughout his career.

“I look forward to making further philanthropic gifts to Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, the University of Chicago, and Clare College Cambridge,” he said in a statement.

He added that the auction would mean he could “continue to do my part in keeping the academic world an environment where great ideas and decency prevail.”

Last year, Francis Crick’s “Secret of Life” letter to his son, in which he explained the structure of DNA weeks before the discovery was officially announced in the April 1953 edition of the journal Nature, was sold for $6.06 million.

The world record price — more than three times its pre-sale estimate — made it the most expensive letter ever sold at auction.

Good for him, and at least he’ll be alive when he sees the medal turned into more science. I fervently wish that some museum would buy it, so we could all see it (I’ve never seen a real Nobel medal), but I fear a private collector will snap it up.

Here’s the Medicine or Physiology medal from the Nobel Prize site, with an explanation (each of the Prizes has a different medal):

The medal of the Nobel Assembly at the Karolinska Institute represents the Genius of Medicine holding an open book in her lap, collecting the water pouring out from a rock in order to quench a sick girl’s thirst.


It’s real gold, of course. The About Education website adds this:

The exact weight of a Nobel medal varies, but each medal is 18 karat green gold plated with 24 karat (pure) gold, with an average weight of around 175 grams [JAC: a bit more than 6 ounces]. Back in 2012, 175 grams of gold was worth $9975 or about ten thousand US dollars. The modern Nobel Prize medal is worth in excess of $10,000! The Nobel Prize medal may be worth even more than its weight in gold if the medal goes up for auction.

That’s for damned sure, as the medal is also engraved with the winner’s name, and this one will have Watson’s on it. It’s the medal given for the most significant discovery in biology of our era.

Go have a look at Crick’s “secret of life” letter at the Smithsonian site. It’s pretty amazing, and lays out all the detail before the famous Nature paper was published.  Here’s one cool bit:

Screen Shot 2014-11-26 at 11.56.59 AM

I’m sure Matthew will talk about this letter in his upcoming book on the genetic code.

h/t: Bruce Grant


78 thoughts on “J. D. Watson to sell his Nobel Prize medal

      1. I think both would be nice to have. Although the letter is more significant to scientists, I think a medal would be more likely to draw a wider audience into a museum, which is always a good thing!

        1. But museums aren’t doing scientific research and Watson will direct the funds toward the projects he feels are worthy. I honestly don’t think a museum will be able to afford a medal like this though, unless they had a rich benefactor.

          1. “But museums aren’t doing scientific research”

            Yikes! Museums are doing research all the time. As Jerry, I, and others wrote in Science (339:1148-49) last year

            “Great natural history museums are among the world’s premier institutions of scientific research, training, and education. The research produced by these museums, based on their collections of biological, geological, and anthropological specimens, has been of incalculable importance in formulating and testing the most fundamental theories and principles of these and related disciplines. In the biological sciences, for instance, contributions from past curators of these collections form the pillars of modern evolutionary biology.”

            I hope anyone who would give $3.5 million to a museum would not give it to buy a medal of no scientific value.

          2. I was probably thinking of museums that concentrate on archaeological things and sequester Classics grads in the basement to sort pottery shards. 🙂

          3. sequester Classics grads in the basement to sort pottery shards

            Isn’t that research? Research into sensory deprivation, perhaps, but research nonetheless.

          4. @gravelinspector-Aidan – it may be research worthy but probably wouldn’t pass any ethics boards. 😉

    1. I don’t understand. If a museum buys it, they pay money to Crick, Crick sends some of it to the entities he wants to. Same as if a private collector buys it.

      1. The question is where does the museum get the money to buy the medal? If they take it away from other worthy research projects, there’s no net gain to science; they’re just moving money from one funding pool to another.

        If a private collector buys it, that’s money that (presumably) would not otherwise have been spent on doing science.

      2. No, the better science museums generally support a staff of researchers (though this is changing in recent years due to budget cuts). If the museum spends six million of its funds for a medal, it won’t have those six million to spend on its own research. On the other hand, if the money comes from some wealthy collector of medals, that’s six million which would most certainly not have been spent on science otherwise.

    2. Ideal, obviously, would be for some wealthy private patron to buy it and then have it permanently on loan to one or several museums. I think everybody wins in that case.


      1. I think it works out to be a net win only if the donor had no prior history as a science-oriented philanthropist, and his purchase of the medal motivates him to become one.

        If he was already a science supporter, then it’s still just a matter of shuffling around funds that he had already earmarked for science.

        1. Perhaps. It could also be these sorts of things that get said person to give to science in the first place, or encourage an even larger donation than usual.


    3. My concern is- and you may correct me here- that many science museums hardly have appropriate security measures to keep such an expensive, and coveted, jewel safe.

    4. Is that really how museums are run? I have no idea, but it must be possible that acquisitions and research have separate budgets. Some wealthy benefactor might be willing to spend money on something he/she can look at in a display case, but not behind the scenes research.

      Or that may be a bunch of nonsense, and your point is dead on.

      1. You’re probably right that they have separate budgets. But those budgets probably are cut from the same pie. Most donations are probably unrestricted (that is our experience at our non-profit, anyway).

      2. These days, the researchers and curators are all getting laid off (or rather, either not being replaced on retirement, or driven to resign due to persecution by glorified pen-pushers) while the administration votes itself bigger salaries and performance bonuses. Or is that not the pattern everywhere?

  1. Am I mistaken in thinking that in order to sell one of these medals, you have to get permission from the Nobel Committee? I know that is the case with the modern Oscars (the older ones could be sold, but the Academy made a rule to stop people from selling the statues). If there ever was a good reason to sell the medal, this is it.

    1. I’ve never heard of that. On what grounds would such an idea start? The award is a personal one to a (or several) named individual, for their personal achievements.
      No, I can’t see why the film academy would be able to make such a rule too. If they awarded to “the sound crew of BigBlockBustah” than that would be a different matter, but again I think the Oscars (and Bafters?) are personal awards too, so [SHRUG].
      See also the story I’m intending to post if noone else brings it up.

      1. Here is one article that mentions that Oscars come with a legal contract:


        The pertinent section:

        Only Oscars won before 1951 can actually be sold without the approval of the Academy as they belong to the individual winner. Awards won after this date technically belong to the Academy and winners must offer the Academy the chance to buy it back for just $1 before they can cash in.

        1. So, the award is a certificate (and I bet there’s a buy-back clause on that too) and not the gold-plated dildo? Sounds very Hollywood.

          1. Don’t know why it never occurred to me before…but, on reflection, it seems a practical certainty that at least some of those awards have been used for exactly that purpose.

            I’d do some searching to confirm that, but I think I’ve already figured out way more than I ever would have wanted to know about the matter….


  2. Even though the money from the Nobel Medal will go to scientific research, I find it sad that Watson is selling it. It would be a nice legacy for his kids, who I believe are my age.

      1. Sadly that is probably highly unlikely for one of his sons (Rufus) who has severe schizophrenia and cannot live an independent life.

  3. Awesome sauce! It will be like winning the Nobel prize twice! I’d like to think every dollar it gets will be one less dollar indulged on a piece of decadent Western art. I hope it goes for way more than the “Buy It Now” price!

  4. http://www.npr.org/blogs/krulwich/2011/10/03/140815154/dissolve-my-nobel-prize-fast-a-true-story

    During the second world war, Niels Bohr had been given two Nobel medals by Jewish scientists for safekeeping, but after the Nazis invaded Denmark, they were very dangerous to have.

    So a Hungarian chemist (who worked in Bohr’s lab, and who won his own Nobel later!) dissolved them in acid (“aquea regia”) and left them in jars on a shelf, and after the war the Nobel committee, using the same gold recovered from the untouched jars, reminted the medals.

    According to the article above, James Frank, one of the medalists, got his reminted one back at a ceremony at the U of Chicago in 1952.

    About selling medals (mentioned at the end of the above article, which I didn’t know, though I’d heard of the dissolved medal story before) — Bohr sold his in 1940 in a auction to aid Finnish relief, and after the war the anonymous buyer donated the medal back to a Danish museum where it still is.

    1. Sounds rather drastic. A couple of medals shouldn’t be so difficult to hide, should they?

      Of course this solution (see what I did there?) is totally chemically justified and a lot more fun than sticking them under the floorboards.

      1. I trust that the people who had to make the decision as nazi soldiers marched into town did fine, given that they survived. To be caught meant death. It always strikes me as odd when people sit safely in front of a warm computer and second guess a split second decision of someone in a life or death situation.

        1. No need to get snide. As you’ve probably read, dissolving gold takes time, and if the Nazis had invaded during that time, they’d had absolutely no plausible denial. Like I suggested it’s creative, but certainly not the trivial way out.

          1. Never having had the opportunity to try dissolving gold in aqua regia (I tried to find an excuse, but the bloody glassware turned out to clean adequately with ammonia water ; boo! And I’d got the fuming nitric and technical hydrochloric all lined up before my damned lab mate suggested I try cleaning the glassware with an alkali. “Curses! Foiled again!”), but it’ probably not going to take too long. Particularly since the core of the medal is not fine gold, so the base metals in that are going to go fairly fast and warm everything up.
            I’d be a brave storm trooper who poked a finger into a beaker fizzing and bubbling away in a corner of a fume cupboard in a university chemistry lab. Brave, or really, really stupid. Inclusive “or”.
            I’d put a few piles of “nitrogen tri-iodide” (so-called) in the fume cupboard for scene setting. Does youtube have any good purple mushroom cloud videos, I wonder?
            [Oh, wikipedia, why do you include useless statements like “When kept cold in the dark and damp with ammonia, NI3 · NH3 is stable.” ; your writers know fine-well that there is no point in keeping it under those conditions! Ohh, fun! Chemical explosives that can be set off by alpha rays. Now there’s a chemist after my own heart! In the rafters. Bowden, F. P. (1958). “Initiation of Explosion by Neutrons, α-Particles, and Fission Products”. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London A 246 (1245): 216–219. doi:10.1098/rspa.1958.0123.]
            Not the best display of purple mushroom clouds – the flexibility of the filter papers disrupts the column. But … you get the message.
            Flies work better than feathers. Bit difficult to train though.

          2. When, as a postdoc, I managed to explode a tube of manganese and iodine (I was synthesizing MnI₂ to use in other reactions) I filled the whole lab with just such a violet cloud. My lab partner didn’t appreciate its beauty and nearly ran me over getting out. All the steel shelving in the lab subsequently rusted pretty badly.

          3. I imagine iodine gas is less instantly injurious to inhale than chlorine gas, but I can still appreciate an urge to get the hell out of the room with the colorful clouds.

            (Chlorine gas is pretty, too…so long as you’re not in the same room with it….)


    2. The story I was planning to mention.
      One additional point : the several litres of solution would have had a colour resembling stale piss. Just a little additional discouragement to inquiring noses.
      I didn’t know about the peregrinations of the Bohr medal. I had thought that Bohr also dissolved his gongs into the same jars, and made a cover story that they’d all been looted during the invasion to deflect attention from nosy Nazis.

        1. I’ve had to deal with the results of too much copper in strong nitric. Carrying the reaction vessel out to the garden shed while careful to remain upwind of the plume of dinitrogen tetroxide … nosy Nazi noses would pretty rapidly not want to knowsies about these NOx-es.
          DO try this experiment at home. But only in a room where you’re already planning on stripping out the wallpaper, drywall and woodwork. And do it when Mum isn’t due home for several hours. (Dad did think ahead a little bit!)

    3. As the link you gave indicates, even in aqua regia dissolving gold is very slow (gold is difficult to oxidize). Amalgamating it in mercury would be much faster (see the process here) and with excess mercury no color change would be evident – and the mercury can be distilled away later. Most inorganic or analytical chemistry laboratory of the period would have had lots of mercury for diffusion pumps or dropping mercury electrodes.

  5. “I’ve never seen a real Nobel medal”
    Jerry – it is time you visited the Special Collections Research Center at the Regenstein Library, about half a block from your campus office. The Archives there has the Nobel medals of James Franck and of Enrico Fermi.

    1. The Nobel committee gives the awardees replicas for public display. Do you know if they show the actual medals there or the replicas? I would think that security might be expensive for the actual medals.

  6. Watson says he intends to use part of the money raised by the sale to fund projects at the universities and scientific research institutions he has worked at throughout his career.

    What a Nobel gesture!

  7. I, too, hope it goes to a museum. I really don’t get why someone wants to spend a bundle on a medal he/she obviously didn’t earn. (I also don’t get spending tons on hockey jerseys, etc.) Great that Watson is using the proceeds to further science, though.

  8. At 76 I can understand selling something that hangs on an ego wall, then use the money for something worthwhile. All the best, Dr. Watson

  9. I was struck by Crick’s use of the word “probably” in the first sentence. I bet Joseph Smith never used that word in any of his letters. It is not a word used very often in religious writing.

  10. I am a birder and was once looking for an uncommon Eurasian Wigeon in Cold Spring Harbor. Another birder, who had also been scanning the harbor, came over and asked if I’d seen anything good(That’s a usual birder pleasantry). He then said “I’m James Watson”, I said “Hi James, I’m Rob, nice to meet you,” Then he said “I discovered the double helix”. Taken aback I said “You’re THE James Watson?” He nodded. I thanked him for his work but was so flabbergasted I forgot to get a photo.

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