Nobel Prize Medal Fetches Record-Breaking $4.76 Million

Watson's Nobel Prize medal.
This Nobel Prize medal was awarded to James Watson in 1962 for his research on the structure of DNA. (Image credit: CHRISTIE'S IMAGES LTD. 2014, Single Use)

James Watson, one of the scientists credited with discovering the structure of DNA, recently made history when he became the first-ever living Nobel laureate to put his prize medal up for auction. And now, Watson has a new claim to fame: Yesterday (Dec. 4), his little gold medal sold for a record-breaking $4.76 million.

The astonishing price tag makes Watson's Nobel the most expensive Nobel Prize medal ever sold in a world auction, according to Christie's New York, the auction house that conducted the sale. Watson was awarded the medal in 1962 for co-discovering the twisted-ladder structure of DNA. His colleagues, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins, were also honored with Nobel Prizes in physiology or medicine.

Last year, the Nobel Prize medal belonging to Crick was sold at auction by the late biologist's family. The medal garnered about $2 million, but another piece of paraphernalia related to the landmark discovery — a handwritten letter to Crick's son explaining the double-helix structure of a DNA molecule — sold for more than $6 million in April 2013. [Code of Life: Photos of DNA Structure]

Bidding for Watson's Nobel Prize medal started at $1.5 million, but the price jumped steadily upward as three Christie's clients battled for the scientific artifact, according to Christie's Books and Manuscripts Director Francis Wahlgren.

"One bidder dropped out at the $3.8 million mark. The remaining two phone bidders battled on, in increments of $100,000, until the final, record-setting price of $4.76 million was achieved – more than double the previous price realized for a Nobel Prize medal at auction," Wahlgren said in a statement.

In addition to the medal, Christie's also auctioned off a draft of Watson's Nobel Prize acceptance speech. Penned by the scientist on hotel stationary before the Nobel Prize banquet in Stockholm, the handwritten notes were sold for $365,000.

A handwritten draft of Watson's Nobel lecture — delivered on Dec. 11, 1962, a few days after he received his prize medal — was also sold at yesterday's auction. The notes for the lecture, titled "The Involvement of RNA in the Synthesis of Proteins," sold for $245,000.

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Elizabeth Peterson

Elizabeth is a former Live Science associate editor and current director of audience development at the Chamber of Commerce. She graduated with a bachelor of arts degree from George Washington University. Elizabeth has traveled throughout the Americas, studying political systems and indigenous cultures and teaching English to students of all ages.