How much for that No­bel prize in the win­dow?


No need to make peace in the Mid­dle East, re­solve one of science’s great mys­ter­ies or pen a mas­ter­piece: the eas­i­est way to get your­self a No­bel prize may be to buy one.

In the 114 years since the No­bel prizes were first handed out, they have been awarded 889 times for pi­o­neer­ing work in the fields of peace, literature, medicine, physics, chem­istry and, since 1969, eco­nom­ics.

But over the years, fol­low­ing re­ver­sals of for­tune and split­ting of in­her­i­tances, at least a dozen No­bel gold medals and diplo­mas have ended up on the auc­tion block.

Yes, it’s the easy way out, as buy­ers don’t have to have “con­ferred the great­est ben­e­fit on mankind,” as stip­u­lated by Swedish sci­en­tist and phi­lan­thropist Al­fred No­bel in his 1895 tes­ta­ment when he cre­ated the prizes.

But as any me­di­a­tor will tell you, peace comes at a price. And sur­pris­ingly, it is not al­ways as high as one would think for a No­bel Peace Prize.

The cheap­est No­bel ever sold at auc­tion is that of France’s Aris­tide Briand, hon­ored in 1926 for his role in France and Ger­many’s short­lived post-war rec­on­cil­i­a­tion.

His prize went for a steal in 2008 at just 12,200 eu­ros (US$13,650 at to­day’s rate). That of Bri­tain’s Wil­liam Ran­dal Cre­mer, who won in 1903, did only slightly bet­ter, go­ing un­der the ham­mer for US$17,000 in 1985. But that was then. Auc­tion prices have sky­rock­eted since, prompt­ing a grow­ing num­ber of lau­re­ates or their fam­i­lies to sell their pres­ti­gious pos­ses­sions.

Since early 2014, at least eight No­bel medals have gone up for auc­tion.

“There is a height­ened in­ter­est in the dis­cov­er­ies and de­vel­op­ments of the 20th cen­tury and the No­bel prize re­ally sym­bol­izes the big­gest achieve­ments of the cen­tury whether they are in science, eco­nom­ics or whether they’re in peace,” ex­plains Fran­cis Wahlgren, the head of Christie’s in­ter­na­tional book and manuscripts depart­ment. “We now have to con­sider them among higher value things that we han­dle,” he adds.

Re­cently sev­eral No­bel prizes for physics, chem­istry and eco­nom­ics have sold for be­tween US$300,000 and US$400,000.

Even more lu­cra­tive was the 1909 Peace Prize awarded to Bel­gium’s Au­guste Beer­naert, which sold for US$661,000, and the 1936 Peace Prize to Car­los Saave­dra Lamas of Ar­gentina — found in a pawn shop years ear­lier — which went for a stag­ger­ing US$1.16 mil­lion.

‘Trump of the sci­en­tific world’

But it is the field of medicine that holds the top spot for the high­est price ever paid for a No­bel medal.

U.S. sci­en­tist James Wat­son, who won the 1962 award for his co-dis­cov­ery of the struc­ture of DNA, is one of the rare lau­re­ates to have sold his prize while still alive.

He cashed in a record US$4.76 mil­lion for his medal in De­cem­ber 2014 — more than dou­ble the amount the heirs of his core­cip­i­ent, Fran­cis Crick of the UK, ob­tained when they sold his medal just 20 months ear­lier.

“Wat­son might have a greater name recog­ni­tion with peo­ple, just be­cause of some of the things he said. He is kind of a con­tro­ver­sial na­ture. He is the Don­ald Trump of the sci­en­tific world,” says Wahlgren.

Wat­son made waves in 2007 when he im­plied in an in­ter­view that Africans were of lower in­tel­li­gence. His medal was re­turned to him by the Rus­sian bil­lion­aire who bought it, Alisher Us­manov, out of grat­i­tude for his ground­break­ing re­search.

And it seems clear that it pays to be alive: 93-year-old Leon Lederman of the U.S. sold his 1988 physics medal for US$765,000 in May.

But some­times sellers are dis­ap­pointed.

The fam­ily of U.S. au­thor Wil­liam Faulkner, who won the No­bel Literature Prize in 1949, with­drew his medal from sale in 2013 af­ter it failed to reach the US$500,000 the fam­ily was hop­ing to get.

The peace medals are made of 150 grams of 18 carat gold — up un­til 1979 it was 23 carats — and fea­ture the pro­file of Al­fred No­bel on one side and three naked men form­ing a cir­cle on the other.

The gold it­self is worth, at to­day’s rates, around US$5,500.

“It’s a medal whose value you can not put a price on be­cause of its rar­ity,” says Kjell Wes­sel, the head of the Mint of Nor­way which makes the peace medal. “There are al­ways peo­ple will­ing to pay for rare ob­jects. Some have bought Elvis’ jacket or things like that for phe­nom­e­nal sums.”

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