James Watson to sell Nobel prize medal he won for double helix discovery
James Watson, the world-famous biologist who was shunned by the scientific community after linking intelligence to race, said he is selling his Nobel Prize because he is short of money after being made a pariah.
Mr Watson said he is auctioning the Nobel Prize medal he won in 1962 for discovering the structure of DNA, because "no-one really wants to admit I exist".
Auctioneer Christie’s said the gold medal, the first Nobel Prize to be sold by a living recipient, could fetch as much as $3.5m (£2.23m) when it is auctioned in New York on Thursday. The reserve price is $2.5m.
Mr Watson told the Financial Times he had become an “unperson” after he “was outed as believing in IQ” in 2007 and said he would like to use money from the sale to buy a David Hockney painting.
Mr Watson, who shared the 1962 Nobel Prize for uncovering the double helix structure of DNA, sparked an outcry in 2007 when he suggested that people of African descent were inherently less intelligent than white people.
If the medal is sold Mr Watson said he would use some of the proceeds to make donations to the “institutions that have looked after me”, such as University of Chicago, where he was awarded his undergraduate degree, and Clare College, Cambridge.
Mr Watson said his income had plummeted following his controversial remarks in 2007, which forced him to retire from the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island, New York. 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.
He would also use some of the proceeds to buy an artwork, he said. “I really would love to own a [painting by David] Hockney”.
Francis Wahlgren, the Christie’s auctioneer who is handling the sale of the medal, said he was confident it would fetch the $2.5m (£1,598347) reserve. He said demand for memorabilia associated with genetic discovery had “exploded” in recent years as the promise of biotechnology became apparent.
“The far-reaching aspects of their discovery affect everybody and are only being appreciated now,” said Mr Wahlgreen.
The auctioneer said he did not expect the controversy surrounding Mr Watson’s comments to deter potential buyers. “I think the guy is the greatest living scientist. There are a lot of personalities in history we’d find fault with – but their discoveries transcend human foibles,” he said
Auctions for memorabilia and art have been setting new records recently as investors look for inflation-proof investments. Earlier this month Christie’s brought in the highest-ever total for an auction at its contemporary sale in New York. The sale grossed $852.9m across 75 lots, including $25.9m for Jeff Koons’s Balloon Monkey sculpture.
Mr Watson – who insisted he was “not a racist in a conventional way” – said it had been “stupid” of him to not realise that his comments on the intelligence of African people would end up in an article.
“I apologise . . . [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.”
In 2007, the Sunday Times ran an interview with Dr Watson in which he 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 newspaper people wanted to believe that everyone was born with equal intelligence but that those “who have to deal with black employees find this not true”.
Mr Watson said he hoped the publicity surrounding the sale of the medal would provide an opportunity for him to “re-enter public life”. Since the furore in 2007 he has not delivered any public lectures.
“I’ve had a unique life that’s allowed me to do things. I was set back. It was stupid on my part. All you can do is nothing, except hope that people actually know what you are,” he said.
Prof Watson made his scientific discovery in 1953 at Cambridge University with Francis Crick. They were jointly awarded the 1962 Nobel Prize in Medicine with Maurice Wilkins, from King's College London, for identifying the elegant double helix in work that laid the basis for modern molecular biology.
Mr Watson said he one day wanted his children to auction the handwritten manuscript for his famous book, The Double Helix. “It will be worth a lot more. We’d have a reserve of at least $10m,” he said.