James Watson's Nobel Prize Sells for Over $4.7 Million

James Watson won the Nobel Prize in 1962 with his partner Francis Crick and fellow scientist Maurice Wilkins for their work on discovering the double helix structure of DNA. Christie's

A Nobel Prize given to Dr. James Watson for his part in the groundbreaking 1953 discovery of the double helix structure of DNA, sold Thursday for over $4.7 million, the first time a living laureate has publicly sold his prize, according to Christie's auction house.

An unidentified bidder with deep pockets claimed the 23-karat gold medal in its original tan suede and satin-lined case for $4,757,000 Christie's auction house in New York City. The sale set the world auction record for a Nobel medal, says Melissa Abernathy, a spokeswoman for Christie's.

Watson shared the award with his partner Francis Crick and fellow scientist Maurice Wilkins when it was bestowed on the trio in 1962.

According to the auction house, a share of the money it raked in will go to support "scientific research, academic institutions and other charitable causes," including the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, the institution from which Watson retired in disgrace in 2007 after making offensive statements about the intelligence of black people to the Sunday Times newspaper.

Watson told the newspaper 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."

His remarks caused an uproar and elicited harsh responses from the scientific community.

"While we honor the extraordinary contributions that Dr. Watson has made to science in the past, his comments show that he has lost his way," Henry Kelly, president of the Federation of American Scientists, said in a 2007 statement. "He has failed us in the worst possible way. It is a sad and revolting way to end a remarkable career."

"Because I was an 'unperson' [following the racial remarks] I was fired from the boards of companies, so I have no income, apart from my academic income," Watson told the Financial Times last month.

However, The New York Times reported Wednesday that Watson is "far from destitute": He remains the chancellor emeritus at Cold Spring Harbor, which provides him with his house, and he received $568,860 in total compensation and benefits in 2012, according to the lab's most recently available tax filings.

Watson told The New York Times the sale was intended to "support and empower scientific discovery," though he might keep a portion of the proceeds for himself and his family after making philanthropic contributions.

The auction also included two related lots: Watson's handwritten notes for his acceptance speech at the annual Stockholm banquet during which the Nobel Prizes are awarded fetched $365,000, and the draft of his Nobel lecture delivered the following day, "The involvement of RNA in the synthesis of proteins," sold for $245,000.

Though Watson's award is the first Nobel sold by a living laureate, his colleague Crick's medal was sold for $2.27 million at auction in April 2013, along with other memorabilia his family had kept after his death in 2004.

The day before Crick's Nobel medal sold, his "Secret of Life" letter, in which he wrote to his son about the DNA discovery weeks before it was published, sold for $6,059,750, according to the Christie's press release, breaking the world record for a letter sold at auction.

All Christie's sales prices include the auction house's premiums, or commission, on sales.