World Coins

George de Hevesy Nobel Prize medal at auction

The Nobel Prize for Chemistry awarded to Hungarian-born scientist George de Hevesy, who concealed two other Nobel medals from the Nazis before receiving his own, will be offered at auction Nov. 23 by Morton & Eden in London.

Listed as Lot 77 in the sale, de Hevesy's medal for 1943, bestowed in 1944, carries an estimate of £120,000 to £150,000 ($157,507 to $196,884 in U.S. funds).

“George de Hevesy’s work and achievements have led, in particular, to enormous advances in radiobiology, medical research and clinical diagnosis, including XRF [X-ray fluorescence], and not surprisingly he was recognized with numerous accolades and honors during his lifetime,” said David Kirk, Morton & Eden specialist in War Medals, British and World Orders and Decorations, and British Coins. “The medals have remained in Hevesy’s family until now and it is a huge privilege to be able offer these medals to be appreciated by a wider audience.”

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Included with Hevesy’s Nobel Medal for Chemistry are three other medals he received for scientific research: the Royal Society’s silver-gilt Copley medal, designed by Mary Gillick and awarded in 1949; the Royal College of Physicians’ Baly Medal in silver by J.S. and A.B. Wyon, named and dated 1951; and the large gold Atoms for Peace Award by the Medallic Art Co., New York, dated 1958. 

De Hevesy’s legacy

The founder of radio analytical chemistry, de Hevesy was a joint discoverer in 1923 with Dirk Coster of the element hafnium. De Hevesy developed the use of radioactive isotopes as “tracers.” For this work he was awarded the Nobel Prize medal; he simultaneously accepted the Nobel Institute's offer of Swedish citizenship.

The official citation for de Hevesy’s prize used the terms “isotopes” and “tracers,” terms either not yet coined or imbued with their scientific meaning when de Hevesy began his career in Manchester, England, in 1911, with Ernest Rutherford, who received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1908.

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According to Morton & Eden, before de Hevesy was awarded his Nobel Prize medal, he concealed two Nobel medals from the Nazis in 1940 by dissolving them in a solution of aqua regia, a mixture of nitric acid and hydrochloric acid.

“Under the Third Reich in Germany private ownership of gold was declared illegal and could incur the death penalty,” according to Morton & Eden. “The medals were those of the German physicists Max von Laue and James Franck, Nobel laureates in 1914 and 1925 respectively, whose personally-named and potentially incriminating gold medals were stored at the Bohr Institute in Copenhagen.  Hevesy, who was working there in the summer of 1940 when the Germans invaded Denmark, had to quickly think how to hide the gold medals.

“After rejecting the idea of burying them, he simply made them disappear by dissolving them in aqua regia, a mixture of nitric and hydrochloric acid. The flask containing its inconspicuous looking solution sat innocently on a shelf and stayed there undisturbed until the end of the War.  Hevesy was then able to recover the gold by reversing the chemical process and subsequently return the reconstituted metal to the Nobel Foundation where it was duly used to make restrikes of the two medals. These were then re-awarded to both their original recipients in 1952.”

Medal specifications

The de Hevesy Nobel medal, designed by Erik Lindberg, is struck in 23-karat gold, weighs 207.55 grams and is 66 millimeters in diameter. The obverse features a portrait left of Alfred Nobel. The reverse, inscribed INVENTAS VITAM IUVAT EXCOLUISSE PER ARTES, features allegorical figures — Science holding a scroll, unveiling Nature holding a cornucopia, with REG. ACAD. SCIENT. SUEC. below, divided by a panel engraved G. HEVESY DE HEVES / MCMXLIV.The edge is marked GULD and dated 1944.

According to the lot description, the piece has “light handling marks,” but is “otherwise virtually as struck, in its fitted display case of issue,” which, the lot description notes, is “slightly waterstained.”

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