World Coins

Two Nobel Prize medals brought to auction in December

On Dec. 13, 2023, the 1905 Nobel Prize Medal in Chemistry awarded to Adolf von Baeyer realized $203,200 at a Sotheby’s auction. It is the earliest gold Nobel medal to be offered at auction.

Images courtesy of Sotheby’s.

The market for gold Nobel Prize medals has been relatively stable for the past few years, excluding the spectacular $103,500,000 that the 2021 Dmitry Muratov Nobel Peace Prize medal realized at Heritage in 2022, where the proceeds benefited UNICEF’s humanitarian response for Ukrainian refugees displaced by war.

Heritage offered a more typical gold Nobel Prize medal — if there is such a thing when they are awarded for grand contributions to learning — on Dec. 15, 2023, with the 1948 Nobel Prize in Chemistry awarded to Arne W. K. Tiselius for his research on electrophoresis and adsorption analysis. Heritage explains, “Today, electrophoresis has many applications for separation of the components of mixtures and is the method of choice for amplified DNA product separations.” The medal sold for $125,000.

The obverse of the medal, presented by The Royal Swedish Academy of Science, depicts Alfred Nobel, while the reverse of the Nobel medal for Chemistry shares a design with the medal for Physics, designed by Erik Lindberg. It depicts Nature as a goddess resembling Isis emerging from clouds and holding a cornucopia. “The veil which covers her cold and austere face is held up by the Genius of Science,” according to the Nobel Prize committee. Inscribed in Latin is INVENTAS VITAM IUVAT EXCOLUISSE PER ARTES, meaning  “It is beneficial to have improved (human) life through discovered arts.”

Just two days earlier at Sotheby’s, the 1905 Nobel Prize in Chemistry — the earliest awarded Nobel Prize in science yet to come to auction — sold for $203,200 against an estimate of $200,000 to $300,000. It was awarded to Adolf von Baeyer, “in recognition of his services in the advancement of organic chemistry and the chemical industry, through his work on organic dyes and hydroaromatic compounds,” and was consigned by his descendants. Both offerings were housed in their original red leather cases, the medals struck in 23 carat gold by the Swedish Royal Mint.

Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel established the prizes in 1895, with awards in Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine, Literature, and Peace instituted in 1901. For decades, the medals avoided the auction block, and it was only in the 1980s that the first gold Nobel medals occasionally started to appear at auction. Heritage’s 2013 sale of Francis Crick’s 1962 Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology for $2,270,500 ignited the market, and medals have appeared with some regularity since, with the most expensive ones being those awarded to well-known recipients or for particularly relevant achievements.

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