Dr. James Watson, the Irish American scientist who discovered the double helix structure of DNA, has sold his Nobel medal at auction for a record-breaking $4.1 million dollars.
It is the highest price paid for a Nobel award at auction. The bidding took place today at Christie’s auction house in New York, which had estimated that the gold medal would go for between $2.5 million and $3.5 million. The winning bid came from an anonymous buyer, who bid by phone.
The New York Times reports that “Dr. Watson, 86, watched the auction open-mouthed from the back of the room with his wife and one of his sons as the bidding, which began at $1.5 million, rose steadily by $100,000 increments, eventually coming down to two phone bidders who pushed the price above $4 million.”
At the conclusion of the record-breaking sale, he said “I’m very pleased. It’s more money than I expected to give to charity.”
News broke on Monday of the geneticist’s move to sell his Nobel medal, which he won in 1962 along with collaborators Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins. The three men, with Rosalind Franklin and Linus Pauling, had discovered the structure of DNA in 1953.
Watson said that his decision to sell the medal was part of an effort to “re-enter public life” after being shunned for making controversial comments about race and intelligence seven years ago.
He claimed that he has been an “unperson” ever since 2007, when he made a comment during an interview with the Sunday Times that black people were not of equal intelligence to white people.
During the 2007 interview, Watson said he was “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa” because “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours – whereas all the testing says not really.”
He told the Financial Times: “I apologize … (the journalist) somehow wrote that I worried about the people in Africa because of their low IQ – and you’re not supposed to say that.”
Watson said it had been “stupid on my part,” and insisted he is not racist “in a conventional way.”
Following his comments, Watson was forced to retire from the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island, New York, although he still holds the position of chancellor emeritus there.
“Because I was an ‘unperson’ I was fired from the boards of companies, so I have no income, apart from my academic income,” he said.
Watson plans to use the money from the sale of the gold medal to make donations to “institutions that have looked after me” such as the University of Chicago and Indiana University (his alma maters) and to Clare College, Cambridge and Cold Spring Laboratories, where he worked. It will also supplement his income.
Prior to the auction, auctioneer Francis Wahlgren told the Irish Times he did not expect the scientist’s previous comments to negatively affect the sale.
“There are a lot of personalities in history we’d find fault with – but their discoveries transcend human foibles,” he said.
Dr. Watson’s notes for his Nobel acceptance speech and the manuscript for a lecture he gave after receiving the prize were also up for auction. They went for $365,000 and $245,000 respectively, both to another anonymous bidder, though not to the same person who won the medal.
Watson traces his roots to Tipperary and is a member of the Irish America Hall of Fame.