Paying the price for a Nobel prize

OSLO • No need to make peace in the Middle East, resolve one of science's great mysteries or pen a masterpiece; the easiest way to get yourself a Nobel prize may be to buy one.

In the 114 years since Nobel prizes were handed out, there have been 889 laureates in the fields of peace, literature, medicine, physics, chemistry and, since 1969, economics.

But over the years, following reversals of fortune and splitting of inheritances, at least a dozen Nobel gold medals and diplomas have ended up on the auction block.

Yes, it is the easy way out, as buyers do not have to have "conferred the greatest benefit on mankind", as stipulated by Swedish scientist and philanthropist Alfred Nobel in his 1895 testament when he created the prizes.

But as any mediator will tell you, peace comes at a price. Surprisingly, it is not always as high as one would think for a Nobel Peace Prize.

The cheapest Nobel ever sold at auction is that of France's Aristide Briand, honoured in 1926 for his role in France and Germany's short-lived post-war reconciliation.

His prize went for a steal in 2008 at just €12,200 (S$19,700). That of Britain's William Randal Cremer, who won in 1903, did only slightly better, at US$17,000 (S$24,000) in 1985.

But that was then.

Auction prices have skyrocketed since, prompting a growing number of laureates or their families to sell their prestigious possessions.

Since early last year, at least eight medals have gone up for auction.

"There is a heightened interest in the discoveries and developments of the 20th century, and the Nobel prize really symbolises the biggest achievements of the century whether in science, economics or... in peace," explained head of Christie's international book and manuscripts department Francis Wahlgren. "We now have to consider them among higher value things that we handle."

Recently, several Nobel prizes for physics, chemistry and economics have sold for between US$300,000 and US$400,000.

Even more lucrative was the 1909 Nobel Peace Prize awarded to Belgium's Auguste Beernaert, which sold for US$661,000, and the 1936 Nobel Peace Prize to Argentina's Carlos Saavedra Lamas, which went for a staggering US$1.16 million.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 04, 2015, with the headline 'Paying the price for a Nobel prize'. Print Edition | Subscribe