By Luann Dallojacono
For the first time in history, a living Nobel laureate has sold his prize.
Geneticist James Watson, 86, chancellor emeritus of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, sold his Nobel Prize medal at an auction in New York City Dec. 4 for hammer price of $4.1 million to an anonymous bidder.
Bidding at Christie’s auction house concluded in less than 10 minutes for the medal, given to Watson in 1962 for the Nobel Prize he shared with Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins for their work in characterizing the double-helix structure of DNA. The auction opened at $1.5 million, with offers increasing in steady $100,000 – and for a brief moment, $200,000 – increments.
“The bidding opened at $1.5 million and proceeded swiftly upward as a three-way battle between clients on the phone, until one bidder dropped out at the $3.8-million mark,” said Francis Wahlgren, Christie's international director of books and manuscripts.
The remaining two phone bidders battled on until the hammer fell at just over $4 million.
With the buyer’s premium added in, the final price for Watson’s medal was $4,757,000 – more than double the previous price for a Nobel Prize medal at auction. The Nobel Prize belonging to Crick, who died in 2004, was auctioned off last year for $2.27 million. Watson’s medal, minted at the Swedish National Mint and plated with 24-karat gold, was initially expected to go for between $2.5 million and $3.5 million, according to a Christie’s statement.
Watson, who attended the auction with his wife and son, said he plans to donate a portion of the proceeds to supporting scientific research, charity, and academic institutions including Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, where he lives, the University of Chicago, where he earned his undergraduate degree, and Clare College in Cambridge.
“I look forward to making further philanthropic gifts… so I can continue to do my part in keeping the academic world an environment where great ideas and decency prevail. I also intend to direct funds to the Long Island Land Trust and other local charities I have long supported,” Watson said in a Christie’s statement.
However, Watson also told the Financial Times on Nov. 28 that his income had fallen following controversial remarks he made in 2007, which forced him to retire from his position as chancellor at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, where he served as director and president for many years prior.
“Because I was an ‘unperson’ I was fired from the boards of companies, so I have no income, apart from my academic income,” he told the Financial Times.
No stranger to controversy, Watson sparked a media storm in 2007 when he told London’s The Sunday Times that he was “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa” because “our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours – whereas all the testing says not really.” He said his hope is that everyone is equal, but that “people who have to deal with black employees find this not true.”
He soon after apologized and said there is no scientific basis for such a belief.
Watson could not be reached for comment. He was 25 years old at the time of the discovery, made in 1953, which paved the way for breakthroughs in genetics and advancements in medicine that continue today.
Watson saw an X-ray diffraction pattern of crystalline DNA for the first time when he met Wilkins in 1951, according to the Nobel Prize’s official website. Changing the direction of his research toward the structural chemistry of nucleic acids and proteins, Watson went to the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge because “it was really the best place in the world then for X-ray crystallography,” he told a TEDTalk audience in 2005.
There, he met Crick.
“He was 35. I was 23. And within a day, we had decided that maybe we could take a shortcut to finding the structure of DNA. Not solve it like, you know, in rigorous fashion, but build a model, an electro-model, using some coordinates of, you know, length, all that sort of stuff from X-ray photographs,” Watson said at the TedTalk.
The rest is, quite literally, history.
Bidders on Dec. 4 also vied for Watson’s handwritten notes for his acceptance speech at the 1962 Nobel Prize banquet ceremony in Stockholm, which went for a hammer price of $300,000, and his manuscript and corrected drafts for his Nobel Lecture, which were sold for a hammer price of $200,000. Including buyer’s premiums, the historic papers sold for $610,000.
Virtually all of Watson’s papers are in the collection of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory archives, according to Christie’s.
When the hammer fell at last year’s auction for a letter written by Crick to his son describing the historic discovery, the final bid was $6 million – more than three times its pre-sale estimated value. It holds the world record for any letter sold at auction, according to Christie’s.
“These historic prices, as well as the strong prices achieved for Dr. Watson’s Nobel acceptance speech and lecture manuscript, demonstrate the growing strength in the market for the iconic pieces related to the early understanding and development of the implications of DNA and its growing relevance today,” Wahlgren said.
Watson told the Financial Times he hopes the publicity surrounding the sale of the medal would give him an opportunity to “re-enter public life.” He would also like to buy a David Hockney painting, he said.