James Watson Auctions Nobel Prize Medal, 
But Why Does it Provoke Controversy?  

Ben G. Bareja, Jan. 17, 2015

James Watson sold his Nobel Prize medal! This is my top choice for the most startling, mysterious, controversial biological science-related story for the year 2014. For me, sad too.

I first read of this news on December 6, 2014 from LiveScience, just two days after the auction. The gold medal was awarded to James Watson as one of three recipients of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962 for co-discovering the double helix structure of the DNA molecule. The DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, is the chemical name for the gene which is the common term for the carrier of heredity in all living organisms. In his pioneering work published in 1866, Gregor Mendel, now considered the Father of Genetics, called it “factor”.

Also auctioned were Watson’s handwritten notes for his acceptance speech during the awarding ceremony on Dec. 10, 1962 in Stockholm, Sweden. Likewise, the draft for his lecture on “The Involvement of RNA in the Synthesis of Proteins” presented a day after the awarding.

Watson’s  Nobel Prize medal fetched US$4.1 million on December 4, 2014, but the anonymous buyer paid $4.76 million including the buyer’s premium that went to the auction house Christie’s New York. With this auction, Watson made history again. He made history first when he co-discovered the DNA, the “the secret of life”, for which he was awarded the prestigious Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962. He shared the prize with Francis Harry Compton Crick and Maurice Hugh Frederick Wilkins.

In the study of elementary genetics, the twisted or spiral molecular structure of the DNA is referred to as the Watson-Crick model. In another page (click here to read), I hinted that it was Gregor Mendel, by his discoveries of the principles of heredity before the birth of the Nobel Prize, who set up Watson and his co-laureates for the award.

Watson's Nobel Prize Medal Made Another History

Now, at 86 years old, James Watson  became the first living laureate to auction his Nobel medal. Francis Crick’s medal was sold more than a year ago, but he already passed away in 2004 and it was his family who did the selling.

James Watson likewise made history by fetching the highest selling price ever for a Nobel Prize medal, at least for now. At $4.1 million, it exceeded by a wide margin the sale of Crick’s medal at $2.27 million.

Personal Impression

When I learned of the sale of Watson’s medal, the first that came into my mind was incredulity. It was simply astounding that such a small medal did manage to fetch a staggering price of $4.1 million. I thought that being able to accomplish a unique feat that qualifies for the Nobel Prize can be financially rewarding to a dedicated scientist even years after the awarding.

And then that incredulity was replaced by sadness and bewilderment. What could have prompted such a distinguished man to part with his precious Nobel Prize medal? I could easily understand the successors of deceased laureates selling any prize that they merely inherited, but James Watson himself is still alive!

Yes, parts of the sale were to be donated to charities and to help advance scientific research, but still I felt that there must exist more compelling reasons. Indeed, sale of such a medal during the lifetime of a recipient was previously unheard of. 

Whatsoever, that medal, even if it be a Nobel Prize medal, is the personal property of James Watson. As owner, he has all the right to dispose of it. Now I know that no condition is attached to the award, there is no prohibition on its sale by the awardee himself.

Anyway, it now appears that  the winning telephone bidder is the billionnaire Alisher Usmanov, a steel, mining, and telecom business tycoon and reputedly the richest man in Russia. What is stunning is that, as reported by various online news providers (e.g. BBC News, Dec. 9, 2014; The Guardian, Dec. 9, 2014;), Usmanov actually intended to return the medal to James Watson!

As reported in these news releases, Usmanov said that it is unacceptable for any outstanding scientist to sell a medal that recognizes his achievements. Indeed, my feeling of despair and the questions in my mind for the sale are not unfounded.

As to the consummation of Usmanov’s pronouncement to return the Nobel Prize medal to its rightful owner, I am unable to find confirmation. It’s been over a month since the bid hammer was banged down, and it seems that your guess is as good as mine. Will James Watson accept it? To our readers, please feel free to enlighten us.

Links on the sale:

BORRELL B. 2014. Watson’s Nobel medal sells for US$4.1 million. Retrieved Jan. 10, 2015 from http://www.nature.com/news/watson-s-nobel-medal-sells-for-us-4-1-million-1.16500.

PALERMO E. 2014. Nobel Prize medal fetches record-breaking $4.76 million. Retrieved Dec. 6, 2014 from http://www.livescience.com/49024-watson-nobel-medal-sells.html.

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