Friday, April 12th, 2013

The Great Nobel Prize Cash-In Begins With A Big Bang

What is the current market value of a Nobel Prize? Until yesterday, that question would have been virtually impossible to answer, which proved to be advantageous to the family of Francis Crick. Heritage Auctions, the entity that conducted the sale of Crick’s 23-carat gold medal in New York this week, declared it a "historic moment."

As such, bidding started at $250,000.

1 Niels Bohr offered his own Nobel Prize to benefit the Finland Relief in 1940. It was purchased by an anonymous bidder who donated it to the Frederiksborg Museum. Son Aage Niels Bohr, a nuclear physicist, also won the prize. The younger Bohr died in 2009, and whoever inherited his medal sold it at auction just last November, for €37,500. The bidder wished to stay anonymous, and the fate of the medal is unknown.

In a wonderfully dramatic—but woefully inaccurate—statement on their website, Heritage declared that it was "the first time in 70 years that a Nobel Prize has been sold at public auction."1 A handful of medals have indeed been sold, but almost all by, and in order to fund, charitable institutions.

Crick heirs, however, are splitting the lion’s share of the $2.27-million final bid amongst themselves. The family has promised 20 percent to the Crick Institute in London, a medical research institute slated to open in 2015.

Francis' descendants placed the majority of the Nobel laureate’s legacy on sale this week. Their timing was impeccable, but far from serendipitous. According to granddaughter Kindra Crick, the family planned the auction to coincide with the 60th anniversary of Francis’ discovery of the double helix of deoxyribonucleic acid. In layman’s terms, he co-discovered the structure of DNA, considered the most significant advancement in the biological sciences since Darwin’s theory of evolution.2

The Crick family’s offerings were breathlessly reported by nearly every major news outlet, from the Wall Street Journal to MSNBC, but journalists seemed curiously unwilling to cast a critical eye. Hardly a sound was made about the allocation of profits, the timing—or the original intent of the Laureate himself.

2 It will be hard to conclude that the gravity of the discovery fully accounts for the high price, as James Watson’s medal, who shared the prize with Crick, is likely to garner a lesser bid. Watson was a celebrated scientist until, in 2007, he told the British Sunday Times Magazine that Africans were less intelligent than Europeans. Sure, he too wanted to believe in equality, but "people who have to deal with black employees find this not to be true." He did apologize after facing suspension from his lab in Cold Springs, but he’s made similarly offensive statements before, alleging that heavier individuals are less likely to get hired because they lack ambition, and that sunlight surely accounts for the "Latin lover’s" libido. His comments on the person and appearance of Rosalind Franklin, the biophysicist who made critical contributions to the understanding of fine molecular structures of DNA, RNA, viruses, coal, and graphite, deserves an article of its own.

Over and over again, iterations of the following AP line appeared, often in its own paragraph: "The items are among a dozen artifacts Crick’s heirs are selling to benefit scientific research." Yes, 20 percent of the profits will go to science, but isn’t that really just a tip, if, at least, a decent one? It seems clear that the heirs sold Francis' medal and personal items to benefit the Crick family.

On Wednesday, son Michael Crick sat in the audience at Christie’s Auction House and watched a 1953 personal letter his father penned go to an anonymous bidder for $6,059,750. He received the seven page letter, which opened with "Dear Michael, Jim Watson and I have probably made a most important discovery," and concluded with "Lots of love, Daddy," when he was away at boarding school. It included rough sketches of the base pairs connecting the molecule’s twisted spines, but Michael, now age 72, had kept the letter tucked away in a plain envelope for decades. A year after his father died, however, "somebody thought it might be valuable." Christie’s agreed, comparing it to a 1939 letter Albert Einstein addressed to Franklin D. Roosevelt.3

3 Crick’s letter fetched a higher price than one written by Abraham Lincoln, which sold for $3.4 million in 2008.

Kindra stressed that the letter belonged to her father, not her family. For his part, Michael has told various media outlets he will donate half of the total profits to the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, where Francis had been a professor. It’s unclear who will profit from other items sold by Christie’s yesterday, including $17,000 for a notebook, and $14,000 for the iconic drawing made by Odile Crick, Francis’ widow, of the double helix.

At Heritage, Shanghai-based executive Jack Wang scooped up, in addition to the Nobel Prize itself, most of the family’s other offerings. He scored the medal’s accompanying diploma, and paid $77,675 for Francis’ canceled check from the Nobel Prize Committee in 1962, which boasts a face value of 85,739.88 Swedish krona. Wang completed his buying spree with Francis’ lab coat, emblazoned with the gold spiral logo, for $8,962.50. According to Greg Rohan, president of Heritage Auctions, the items will likely be displayed together in Shanghai in order to promote science and medicine, but there are no guarantees.

If Wang decides to keep the items locked away, never again to be seen by the public, he would be well within his rights. Unless the anonymous bidder from Christie’s donates Francis’ letter to a museum or collecting library, its secluded fate is sealed.

"We were advised not to attach any strings," Kindra said over the phone before the auction, despite telling most news outlets that the family was motivated by a desire to make the items available to the public. During Francis’ life, he kept the prize locked away in a room with other important documents. After his widow died in 2007, the family placed it in a bank vault for safekeeping.

To echo the sentiments of Soraya de Chadarevian, a science historian at the University of California, Los Angeles, "it would have been better placed in an archive." Many donors meet with potential institutions in order to negotiate terms. It’s not uncommon to specify that items must be seen by the public on a yearly basis.

4 He also appeared to be a man of principle. Part of the reason he accepted an honorary fellowship at Churchill College, Cambridge, was that, in 1960, the new college did not have a chapel. When a large donation was accepted to establish one, Francis resigned in protest. Also to be filed under things we know about Francis: He believed in the theory of panspermia, asserting that life was seeded on Earth by a kind of intergalactic “sperm” that arrived via comet or meteor. Many have discounted this theory using Francis’ own research on DNA. The molecule would likely decay during the time it takes to travel from one star to another.

How would Francis have felt about all of this? Kindra explained his only specifications had to do with his scientific papers, which he donated to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. Copies are also available at the University of California, Santa Barbara, but most are digitized and available online. In other words, Francis seemed to believe in free and open access, as well as the effectiveness of archives that ensures this.4

While Francis Crick once again made history this week, his heirs seemingly initiated a trend. The Copenhagen auction house Bruun Rasmussen has announced that they will be selling scientists Ben Mottelson’s 1975 Nobel Prize and Sune Bergstrom’s own 1982 medal next month. In June, Sotheby’s will be auctioning off William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize medal, along with unpublished stories and personal letters. Lee Caplin, executer of the estate, told the New York Times that Faulkner’s heirs hoped it would end up at a public institution, but, like the Crick family treasures, it looks like the goods will go to the highest bidder.

Alexis Coe is now a writer living in San Francisco, but not long ago, she was a research curator at the New York Public Library. Her work has appeared in the Atlantic, Slate, The Millions, and other publications. Alexis holds an MA in history. Follow her.

10 Comments / Post A Comment

KenWheaton (#401)

I feel less stupid after reading this. Job well done.

Drawn7979 (#242,134)

hehe, i get the same feeling here!

BadUncle (#153)

How will this affect the 911 Commemorative Gold Plated Coin market?

beldewof (#243,087)

so good

ianf (#11,118)

So the gold Nobel Prize medal sold for a measly
$2.27M, while the presumably typewritten 7-page
letter adressed by Francis Crick to his pre/teenage
son Michael went for $6,059,750, nearly 3 x that?

That, if anything, shows the value of the written
word. What are you doing here reading this crap,
go back to Twitter to polish your craft 140 chars
at a time!

[ BTW. over the years I've come across a number of
unusual Nobel Prize/ medal tales, but the only one
that stuck in my mind was the fate of the 2 stored
in Niels Bohr's Physics institute (not his very own from
1922) which, upon the Nazis marching into Copenhagen
in 1940 and expected to loot everything shiny esp. for
their "war effort," were dissolved in acid, then stored
on a shelf in liquid form
, to be again made into a solid
and sent off to the Swedish Mint to be re-minted into
proper Nobel Prize Medals after the WWII.]

Alexis_Coe (#243,103)

@ianf Agreed. In reality, the letter demonstrates far more about the achievement than the medal does. And that's my favorite Nobel story!

That is a crazy story!

questingbeast (#201,738)

Great article.

sophiah (#13,210)

Soooo, how much of the proceeds went to the descendants of Rosalind Franklin, whose work Crick and Watson lifted and integrated into their own?

ianf (#11,118)

@marenca: you are quite right in remembering
Rosalind Franklin's name, though perhaps not
in this particular pecuniary-achievement regard.

Yes, posthumously she was unjustly treated by
her contemporaries, and ought to, perhaps, be
credited for contibuting to the discovery of the
DNA-structure alongside—definitely on a par
with—her lab director Maurice Wilkins (the odd
man out in that trio). I am pretty sure that, had
she lived when they were nominated, she would
not be entirely silent. Whatever the outcome,
let's not overdo her status as YA Victim of Male
Patriarchy… she was a Player, and gave back as
good as she took. When one reads, or, listens
to James Watson's, the most male-piggish of
the trio, various autobiographcal musings over
the years, one can but come away with the
conclusion that »the Dark Lady of the DNA«
(as biographer Brenda Maddox called her),
scared the bejesus out of him. The man was
IN AWE of her obvious scientific knowledge
and competence, and, no doubt, the sexual
power that such an independent, outspoken
and attractive young woman must have had
these late 40s postwar-Britain days. Moreover
—from which the road to French kissing, as we
all know, is just a sin away.

If you'd like to acquaint yourself with the rest
of my Franklin-oriented arguments, see this
short 3-post exchange I contributed to in the
comments to Sarah Lacy's 2010 article »Think
It's Hard Being a Woman in Tech? Try It in the
1940s.« that dealt primarily with Grace Hopper's
contribution to computing sciences (indeed,
most of »line programmers«–akin to line pro-
ducers in movies; those, whose names are only
present in the credits roll at the end of the film–
in early computing were women whose menfolk
were drafted to do the nation's important blood-
letting, foreign syphilis acquisition, etc.). The
subthread begins with the words "@Zoe, Rosalind
Franklin certainly was unjustly treated by her
colleagues, and patronized in person…" and may
be found @

As an oddity in this context, more recently Guy
Rundle came up with a novel and wholly pre-
posterous hypothesis of tainting the blame for
»thatcherism« on the eminent scientist Richard
Dawkins (whose Selfish Gene and other philo-
sophical arguments says have influenced the
young Margaret, then a scientist in the field
of chemistry. The two also met in person.)
From that I quote the relevant portion here:

[Margaret] Thatcher was close to one of the
central scientific events of the twentieth
century – in the early 50s [her mentor]
Hodgkin was shown the first x-ray photos
of DNA by a colleague Rosalind Franklin
(who should have shared the Nobel that
Crick and Watson gained for it), and gave
a suggestion as to which general idea of
structure would best fit the material. At
this time, Thatcher was still in touch with
Hodgkin (she would eventually hang
a portrait of Hodgkin in Number Ten
Downing Street). It seems highly unlikely
to me that being close to these momentous
events did not have a fundamental effect
on a young Thatcher. One can’t help but
wonder if her willingness to atomise British
society was in part prepared for by a literal
understanding of atomisation itself.

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