Physicist Leon Lederman's Nobel Prize Medal Sells for $765,000

by Alan Boyle /  / Updated 
Image: Leon Lederman
Experimental physicist Leon Lederman played a part in the discovery of the muon neutrino.Fermilab

Breaking News Emails

Get breaking news alerts and special reports. The news and stories that matter, delivered weekday mornings.

The Nobel Prize gold medal that physicist Leon Lederman won in 1988 was auctioned off on Thursday for a winning bid of $633,335, plus a buyer's premium that brought the final price to $765,002.

That put the transaction at No. 4 on the list of 10 Nobel Prize sales over the past 30 years, said Sam Heller, a spokesman for Nate D. Sanders Auctions. The reserve price had been set at $325,000, and six bids were received during a back-and-forth session that went almost two hours into overtime.

"I'm shocked it sold at all," Lederman's wife, Ellen, told The Associated Press on Friday. "We would let little kids play with it and have their picture taken."

Auction manager Laura Yntema told NBC News that the winning bid was placed online — but she declined to provide further information about the buyer, citing the auction house's confidentiality rules.

Lederman, 92, won a share of the physics prize for his role in the discovery of the muon neutrino — but he's arguably best-known for his 1993 book about the search for the Higgs boson, titled "The God Particle." That label for the elusive subatomic particle rankles some physicists to this day. (Lederman joked that his publisher wouldn't let him use his preferred title, "The Goddamn Particle.")

Related: LHC Reveals First Glimpse of Higgs Boson at Work

Lederman used his share of the money from the 1988 Nobel Prize to buy a vacation cabin in Idaho — which he and his wife now use as their principal residence.

Ellen Lederman, who is 67, told AP that she and her husband have been living comfortably in retirement, but that they now face potentially costly medical bills and uncertainty following a diagnosis of dementia for the Nobel-winning physicist.

"It's terrible," she said. "It's really hard. I wish it could be different. But he's happy. He likes where he lives with cats and dogs and horses. He doesn't have any problems with anxiety, and that makes me glad that he's so content."

In a statement forwarded to NBC News by Fermilab, where Lederman worked for decades, the couple said they hoped the auction would raise "the awareness of physics research in the United States and around the world."

For the record, the top price for a Nobel Prize auction was set last year, when James Watson — the biologist who played a key role in deciphering DNA's double helix — sold his 1962 gold medal for $4.7 million. (The buyer, Russian billionaire Alisher Usmanov, said he gave the medal back to Watson.)

Watson and Lederman are the only living Nobel laureates to put their medals up for sale.

The second-highest price of $2.2 million was recorded in 2013 for the medal owned by the late British biologist Francis Crick, a colleague of Watson's in the DNA discovery. No. 3 on the list is the Nobel Peace Prize medal that was won in 1936 by Carlos Saavedra Lamas, an Argentine scholar and statesman. His heirs sold that medal to an Asian collector last year for $1.1 million.

Breaking News Emails

Get breaking news alerts and special reports. The news and stories that matter, delivered weekday mornings.
MORE FROM news