The prices for gold Nobel Prize medals at auction continue to exceed expectations as more examples enter the marketplace. On Nov. 4, Heritage Auctions sold the 1966 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine, awarded to Francis Peyton Rous, for $461,000. A week earlier, the Physiology or Medicine Nobel Prize awarded to Alan Lloyd Hodgkin in 1963 brought $795,614 at a Los Angeles auction.
The curious market for these Nobel Prize medals is perhaps best characterized by Laura Yntema, auction manager for Nate D. Sanders Auctions in Los Angeles who has traded more of these medals than any other firm. “It's not exact what the market is,”she said in a May 26, 2015, story in The Chicago Tribune. “That's why they go to auction.”
Heritage’s Rous medal was offered at the firm’s Nov. 4 to 5 Manuscripts Grand Format Auction in New York City and was featured on the cover of the catalog. Rous received the award for his work on the relationship of viruses to cancer and he shared the honor equally with Charles Brenton Huggins, a specialist in prostate cancer who studied how hormone therapy could control the spread of some cancers. The medal sold within its presale estimate of $300,000 to $500,000.
Nate D. Sander’s Oct. 29 auction featured the 1963 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine awarded to physiologist Alan Lloyd Hodgkin, along with his colleagues Andrew Fielding Huxley and John Eccles, for his groundbreaking work on nerve impulses that helped science better understand seizures and Parkinson’s disease. As the lot description noted, the work left a legacy. “Hodgkin is also responsible for identifying the Hodgkin Cycle and, along with colleagues Andrew Fielding Huxley and John Carew Eccles, hypothesized the existence of ion channels on cell membranes, a concept which took over 20 years to confirm; that confirmation earned Erwin Neher and Bert Sakmann the 1991 Nobel Prize.” The nearly $800,000 that the gold medal realized exceeded the presale reserve of $450,000.
The lot included an archive including original photographs of Hodgkin receiving his award at a ceremony in Oslo, Norway, on Dec. 10, 1963, along with the maroon leather presentation box with a white satin lining and Hodgkin’s name printed on the front.
Nobel Prize medals were designed by Swedish artist Erik Lindberg and the common obverse features a portrait of Alfred Nobel. The reverse has the recipient’s name engraved along with the date of the award in Roman numerals at the bottom. The reverse design — unique to the medal for Physiology or Medicine — represents the Genius of Medicine holding an open book in her lap, collecting the water pouring out from a rock in order to quench a sick girl’s thirst, with a Latin inscription that translates as, “inventions enhance life which is beautified through art.”
Gold Nobel Prize medals of the 1960s are made of 23-karat gold and measure 6.5 centimeters in diameter. Only a handful of the 889 medals awarded since 1901 have ever been sold. A small but growing number of Nobel Prize medals have appeared at auction in the past several years, providing important pricing information about this area that, until recently, has not been transparently traded.
The primary catalyst for this market was the 2013 sale of the 1962 Nobel Prize awarded to molecular biologist Francis Crick for $2.3 million. In 2014, a 1962 Nobel Prize medal awarded to James Watson for showing how DNA is structured brought $4.75 million. Another recent key transaction is the 2014 sale of a 1936 medal to Argentina’s Foreign Minister Carlos Saavedra Llamas for $1.16 million. In that catalog, Stack’s Bowers Galleries wrote, “Without reservation, the Nobel Peace Prize is the most famous medal in the world. It is more universal than the Pulitzer Prize, more well known than an Olympic gold medal, revered a thousandfold more than numismatic classics like the Libertas Americana medal.”
Lincoln tops sale
The Nobel Prize wasn't the only highlight in the Heritage auction. The firm also sold a manuscript signed by Abraham Lincoln, from circa March 1865, with the last paragraph of his second inaugural address for $2,213,000. The manuscript was sold as part of a 170-page autograph book belonging to Linton J. Usher, the son of Lincoln's secretary of the interior, John Palmer Usher, and comprising 13 lines of text and signature. Within those 13 lines is a key statement, with Lincoln writing in his own hand, “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and his orphan — to do all which may achieve, and cherish a just, and a lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations. [signed] Abraham Lincoln.” Other signatures included Vice President Andrew Johnson, Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and Supreme Court Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase.