How to Win a Nobel Prize by Just Writing a Check for a Lot
If you were not feted in Stockholm or Oslo last month, here’s your chance to still nab a prize.
First off, truth in advertizing- In the title, I am using the terms “win” and “lot” as they are used in the auction world, i.e., “to win a lot” means to be the high bidder on an item in an auction.
The prize medal in question will be auctioned tomorrow at RR Auction in Boston, and, as of this writing, it carries a high bid of $ 42,500.
How much, then, is a Nobel Prize really worth?
It might be reasonable to start with its intrinsic value. It weighs 205 grams, and the current price of a gram of gold is $ 40.07. That, though, is for 24 karat gold, and the medal was only cast in 23 karat gold. Accounting for the discrepancy, it has a scrap value, (and it pains me to even write that), of $ 7,872.09. That would be the current value of any of the medals struck prior to 1980, like the one being auctioned tomorrow. After that date, they were downgraded to an 18 karat electrum (a.k.a. “green gold”) core plated with 24 karat gold. These later models would be worth somewhat less, on the order of $ 6,250-7,000.
I think that it is safe to say, though, that no laureate would part with it for such a paltry sum.
How much, I wonder, does one have to offer a Nobel Prize winner to give up his medal?
In one particularly distressing instance, the amount came to $ 765,000. That was how much Leon Lederman reportedly received in 2015 for the one he had won in Physics in 1988. He needed the funds to pay his medical bills.
He was not, though, the first living laureate to sell off the prize. That honor went to one of the most famous winners of all time, James D. Watson of “Watson & Crick fame”. In 2014, he sold his for $ 4.75 million at Christie’s, with the stated intent of “donating much of the proceeds to educational institutions”. In a surprise move after the sale, the billionaire purchaser, Alisher Usmanov, declared that he was going to give it back to Watson. He nobly stated that “a situation in which an outstanding scientist has to sell a medal recognising his achievements is unacceptable”. (One could wonder if Mr. Double Helix would then have considered double-selling the medal.)
In light of these figures, imagine how distressed a laureate would be if he were forced to surrender his medal for nothing. This almost happened to Brian Schmidt, the 2011 winner of the prize in Physics, when he went through airport security at the Fargo, ND, airport carrying his award. (I beg your indulgence, as it is a story I enjoy relating.)
“On his way home, Schmidt had to send his gold medal through the X-ray machine at airport security. The airport security seemed very confused with this completely black object on the screen and asked what it was and who gave it to him. Schmidt answered that it was a gold medal that he had received from ‘The King of Sweden.’ Their subsequent question was why the King had given him this medal where Schmidt answered ‘Because I helped discover the expansion rate (at which) the universe was accelerating.”
Evidently, even today’s Nobel Prize winners are subjected to the indignities of both doctors’ bills and airport security.
The medals which are sold posthumously rarely have such “human interest” angles, though the one being sold tomorrow does have a quirk. It was the prize awarded in 1924 to Manne Siegbahn for his discoveries and research in X-ray spectroscopy. One could have bought it, paired with the Nobel his very own son won in 1981, this last July. (In case you are curious, there are only four father-and-son Physics prize winners.) The two prizes had been offered together at Sotheby’s, London, with a combined estimate of $ 198,000-330,000, and gone unsold.
Why might the father’s medal now be on offer solo? Allow me a flight of fancy.
Considering the years in which they were awarded, the father’s is solid gold, while the son’s is gold plated. If one were of a larcenous mindset, one would realize that only a solid gold medal could be re-engraved with someone else’s name. (If the inscription on a plated medal were polished off, the green gold underneath would be revealed.) In an era in which fakery abounds, $ 42,500 might not be deemed too much to pay to pad a résumé with a Nobel.
Barden Prisant, Contributor
More at https://www.forbes.com/sites/bardenprisant/2018/12/12/how-to-win-a-nobel-prize-by-just-writing-a-check-for-a-lot/