Russian tycoon Alisher Usmanov buys Nobel medal for $5.4 million, returns it to laureate

The Nobel Prize medal auctioned by Christie's on Dec 3, 2014. -- PHOTO: CHRISTIE'S IMAGES LTD 2014
The Nobel Prize medal auctioned by Christie's on Dec 3, 2014. -- PHOTO: CHRISTIE'S IMAGES LTD 2014
Mr Usmanov said through a London public relations firm that he would return the medal to its winner - Professor James D. Watson (pictured), now 86. -- PHOTO: AFP 
Mr Usmanov said through a London public relations firm that he would return the medal to its winner - Professor James D. Watson (pictured), now 86. -- PHOTO: AFP 
Entrepreneur and philanthropist Alisher Usmanov announced on Tuesday that he was the anonymous bidder who won the Nobel prize sold at an auction at Christie's last Thursday. -- PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
Entrepreneur and philanthropist Alisher Usmanov announced on Tuesday that he was the anonymous bidder who won the Nobel prize sold at an auction at Christie's last Thursday. -- PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

THE buyer who was behind the record price for a Nobel prize medal sold at an auction has been revealed to be a Russian billionaire.

Entrepreneur and philanthropist Alisher Usmanov, listed by Forbes as the richest man in Russia, announced on Tuesday that he was the anonymous bidder who won the gold medal for US$4.1 million (S$5.4 million) at an auction at Christie's last Thursday. Including commission, the outlay worked out to about US$4.76 million. Christie's said it was a record amount fetched by a Nobel at an auction.

Mr Usmanov, 61, who has a net worth of US$15.8 billion from his investments in steel, mining and telecoms, said through a London public relations firm that he would return the medal to its winner - Professor James D. Watson, now 86.

Prof Watson and his colleagues Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins were awarded the Nobel prize in 1962 for discovering the double-helix structure of DNA. He sold the medal intending to give most of the proceeds to charity.

Mr Usmanov, who once invested in Facebook and partly owns London football club Arsenal, said he wanted Prof Watson - "the person who deserved it" - to fulfil his desire to donate to charity, but spare him the neccessity of giving up his medal.

"In my opinion, a situation in which an outstanding scientist has to sell a medal recognizing his achievements is unacceptable," Mr Usmanov said, according to the statement. "James Watson is one of the greatest biologists in the history of mankind and his award for the discovery of DNA structure must belong to him."

Prof Watson's spokesman David Kass said the tycoon had asked the Nobel prize winner to call off the auction in exchange for a cash gift to give to charity, but Prof Watson had declined. The auction ultimately ended with a bid higher than Mr Usmanov's original offer, he added.

"Obviously he's overjoyed to be getting it back," The New York Times quoted Mr Kass as saying of the Nobel laureate, who is chancellor emeritus at Cold Spring Harbour Laboratory on New York's Long Island. "He's humbled by it."

Mr Usmanov's father died of cancer, and he said he hoped Prof Watson's valued contribution to cancer research would continue.

"It is important for me that the money that I spent on this medal will go to supporting scientific research, and the medal will stay with the person who deserved it," The New York Times quoted Mr Usmanov as saying. "I wouldn't like the medal of the distinguished scientist to be an object on sale."