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Auction of James Watson's DNA Nobel will help fund scientist's charitable work

James Watson, 86, who shared the 1962 Nobel

James Watson, 86, who shared the 1962 Nobel for discovering DNA, says proceeds from the auction will go to philanthropy. Credit: Newsday

Pioneering geneticist James Watson is looking forward to funding several philanthropic projects with proceeds expected from Thursday's auction of his gold Nobel Prize medal and two of his key manuscripts. All are up for bid at Christie's in Manhattan.

The auction house estimates the value of the 23-karat gold medallion within the $2.5 million to $3.5 million range. Watson, who lives on Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory's campus, received the medal on Dec. 10, 1962.

Another item to be auctioned is a document called the "Banquet Speech," handwritten in blue ink on stationery from the Grand Hotel of Stockholm. It was to be delivered at a dinner for Nobelists. Watson, however, has long said his handwriting was so unreadable he had to wing it at the podium when the time arrived to speak. The speech carries an estimated value of $300,000 to $400,000.

His other document is a significant scientific paper -- his Nobel Prize speech -- titled "The Involvement of RNA in the Synthesis of Proteins." His talk canvassed the essence of ribonucleic acid's role in the production of proteins. The early 1960s were breakthrough years during which scientists unmasked many of the molecular activities driving the myriad functions of cells. That document's worth is estimated between $200,000 and $300,000.

Watson, 86, shared the 1962 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine with Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins. The three men in 1953 collaboratively delineated DNA's helical structure.

Watson was unavailable Tuesday for comment.

A fourth scientist, Rosalind Franklin, who actually had taken an X-ray photo of life's master molecule, also was in the vanguard of those defining DNA's spiraling form. However, she had died of ovarian cancer in 1958. Nobel Prizes are not awarded posthumously.

Crick died in 2004, and his heirs auctioned off his Nobel medal and a letter last year. "The Crick family sold it for $2.27 million. That was more than four times the pre-sale estimate and is the basis for the $2.5 to $3.5 million value we've placed on Dr. Watson's medal," said Melissa Abernathy of Christie's.

Crick's medal was sold through an auction house known as Heritage, but the letter he had written to his son was auctioned through Christie's, Abernathy said, and fetched $6.059 million.

"Dr. Watson has stated that he wants to donate to the institutions that helped shape his career: The University of Chicago; Indiana University, where he did doctoral work; and Clare College at Cambridge," she said.

Others close to Watson said he also wants to seed grants for promising scientific projects.

Abernathy noted that Watson, an avid bird-watcher, has not forgotten the campus whose scientific missions he helped shape.

"He plans additional gifts to Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and the Long Island Land Trust," she said of a conservancy that helps protect farms and natural landscapes.

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