If you feel like owning a Nobel Prize medallion, now is your chance. And not just any Nobel Prize either. The one to be sold on Thursday is the 1962 prize awarded to James Watson for the discovery of the structure of DNA, the basis of the subsequent genetic revolution.
However, while the significance of the achievement is not in doubt, for some buyers the context in which the sale is being made may taint its value.
Nobel medals have fetched a hefty price before, even if they're hard to take through airport security. So far, all previous cases of a Nobel medal being sold were by inheritors after the recipient had died.
Watson has expressed an intention to donate some of the money raised to “institutions that looked after me,” such as the University of Chicago and Clare College, Cambridge. He also wants to buy a painting by renowned artist David Hockney. While Hockney's work has sold for as much as $7.9 million, Christie's auction house anticipates the medal will bring in $2.5 million to $3.5 million, which should cover one of his lesser works with something to spare. Watson is also offering his handwritten notes for his acceptance speech and a draft of a lecture the following day.
Watson indicated another motivation for the sale is to make up for lost income after comments he made in 2007. “Because I was an ‘unperson’ I was fired from the boards of companies, so I have no income, apart from my academic income,” he told the Financial Times.
Watson blames his unpopularity in certain circles on being “outed as believing in IQ.” This is a creative interpretation of his statements that Africans were less intelligent than Westerners. He told the paper that people wish to believe that every person is born with equal intelligence, but that "those who have to deal with black employees find this not true”. While Watson has since issued a sort of apology for the statement, he does not appear to have rethought his position, only the wisdom of stating it publicly. He has also suggested that people with darker skin have higher libidos.
It is far from uncommon for great minds to express stupid opinions in their old age, but Watson has attracted criticism almost since his rise to fame. The explanation for the structure of DNA offered by Watson and Francis Crick depended on the outstanding X-ray diffraction images taken by Rosalind Franklin. Crick and Watson used unpublished photographs and ideas by Franklin without her consent to shape their thinking.
Franklin did not share in the Nobel Prize, and many people have argued that this was a result of deliberate efforts by the other discoverers to downplay her contribution, crediting it instead to Maurice Wilkins. The description of Franklin in Watson's book The Double Helix has since enhanced the credibility of those suspicians that the sidelining of Franklin was motivated in part by sexism, although the two worked constructively on subsequent projects.
Watson has previously indicated he would not employ “fat people,” even if they were qualified. It's not clear how he feels about taking their money if they want to buy his medal.