Books & Manuscripts

7 Things You Need to Know about the Nobel Prize

By Martin Dean
As a recognition of an outstanding contribution to human knowledge and culture, few accolades are as venerable as the Nobel Prize. For collectors, they represent a uniquely triumphant moment in a person’s life that is at once public and intimate. Ahead of Sotheby's upcoming online auction, Friedrich von Hayek: His Nobel Prize and Family Collection, here are 7 things you need to know about this prestigious award.

1. Prestigious prize

The Nobel Prize is regarded as the most prestigious prize for intellectual achievement in the world. It was created by industrialist Alfred Nobel who, in 1859, instructed that the majority of his fortune be put aside so that five awards — for physics, chemistry, medicine, literature and peace — could be given annually “to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind.” Later, in 1968, the Sverige Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences was created to the lineup of Nobel awards.

2. Finding the winners

An enormous amount of research goes into selecting the winners. Beginning more than 12 months in advance, more than 6,000 people are invited to nominate winners, including Nobel laureates and scholars in the relevant disciplines.

3. High achievers

Lists of Nobel Prize winners tell a fascinating story of human achievement. From W. B. Yeats to Chinese human rights activist Liu Xiaobo, former president Barrack Obama and musician Bob Dylan, the list is extremely diverse and includes some of the best and bravest minds throughout history. However, in the award’s history, several figures have been forced to refuse the award. Adolf Hitler forbade three German Nobel Laureates from receiving the prize, while Boris Pasternak was coerced by the authorities of the Soviet Union to decline the prize for literature in 1958.

4. Collecting history

Nobel prizes are eagerly sought after by collectors, and while they are made of 18 carat gold, their value lies in their provenance, specifically their intimate connection with the life of their highly accomplished recipient.

5. A new record

The market for Nobel prizes saw something of a shakeup in 2013 when the prize awarded to scientist Francis Crick, famous for discovering the structure of DNA, was sold for $2.3m (£1.3m) at Sotheby’s. After this date, prices of over $500,000 became the new norm.

Nobel Prize-Winner Francis Crick, Photo: Marc Lieberman

6. DNA of success

A year later in 2014, the Nobel prize awarded to Francis Crick’s fellow scientist in the discovery of DNA, James Watson, sold for $4.1m (£2.6m). It was bought by Alisher Usmanov, Russia’s richest man at the time, who asked that the proceeds be donated to the Scientific community.

7. Starting young

2019 saw Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old climate change campaigner, nominated for her work. The youngest laureate to date is Malala Yousafzai, who received the Nobel Peace Prize for her work on children’s right to education aged 17.

CLICK HERE to listen to a podcast where Duke University professor Bruce Caldwell and Sotheby’s specialist Gabriel Heaton discuss F.A. Hayek.

CLICK HERE to view the full sale catalogue.

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