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James Watson's gold Nobel medal is auctioned for record $4.1M

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

When the hammer fell on the final bid at Christie's in Manhattan Thursday, the Nobel Prize medal belonging to geneticist James Watson was sold for a record $4.1 million.

It went to an anonymous buyer who won in active, competitive bidding. All of the bidders were seeking a small but highly valued token in the history of science.

With premiums paid to the auction house, and the sale of two written Watson documents, the total sale exceeded $5 million.

"We can't identify the winning bidders," said Melissa Abernathy of Christie's, who noted that brisk bidding set the tone for the medal's quick sale.

She added that the winning bidders may decide to reveal themselves at some point, as was the case last year with Jack Wang, chief executive of a medical technology company in Silicon Valley. He outbid several potential buyers seeking the gold Nobel medal of Watson's co-investigator Francis Crick, which sold last year for $2.27 million. Crick died in 2004. Wang announced his purchase some time after the sale.

Yesterday, bidding for Watson's medal opened at $1.5 million and quickly rose as bidders forced the price upward, $100,000 at a time. Christie's webcast the bidding. Watson, 86, attended the auction with his family.

"There were four minutes of very competitive bidding among three bidders over the phone," Abernathy said. One of the phone bidders triumphed.

That bidder also paid a so-called buyer's premium, Abernathy said, which goes to the auction house, bringing the medal's total to $4.76 million. Two documents, the "Banquet Speech" handwritten on Grand Hotel of Stockholm stationery and Watson's typewritten Nobel Prize speech, were also on the auction block.

The handwritten document sold for $365,000 while the original typewritten copy of his speech delivered the night of the Nobel ceremony garnered $245,000. Those documents were purchased in anonymous bids and were unrelated to the buyer who won the medal.

Watson, whose name is synonymous with Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, where he resides, received the 23-karat gold award on Dec. 10, 1962, in Stockholm. There, he and Crick, along with scientist Maurice Wilkins, who worked independently of them, were cited for their groundbreaking 1953 work that uncovered DNA's spiraling configuration.

Watson helped shape the scientific mission of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory over many decades and served as chancellor until 2007, but he resigned after making disparaging racial remarks.

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