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Nobel Prize in Chemistry Medal Awarded to Robert Curl for Discovery of Fullerenes Sold

R.F. Curl Nobel Prize. Image: Nate D. Sanders Auctions / CoinWeek.
R.F. Curl Nobel Prize. Image: Nate D. Sanders Auctions / CoinWeek.

By Hubert Walker for CoinWeek ….

While a few Nobel Prize medals have been auctioned for millions of dollars in recent years–such as both James Watson and Francis Crick’s 1962 Physiology and Medicine awards for the discovery of DNA, and Russian Journalist Dmitri Muratov’s 2021 Nobel Peace Prize–every sale of these unique and prestigious medals attracts both mainstream and numismatic attention. On March 28, 2024, the Los Angeles-based Nate D. Sanders Auctions sold the Nobel Prize medal awarded in 1996 to American chemist Robert F. Curl, Jr. for $442,871 USD. The total, which includes the buyer’s premium, was more than twice the minimum bid of $200,000.

Dr. Curl, along with his colleagues Richard E. Smalley and Sir Harold W. Kroto, received the award for their 1985 discovery of fullerenes, a class of carbon nanoparticles arranged in such a way as to form a kind of net, ball, or other container. The most famous example, the buckminsterfullerene or “buckyball”–named for the influential futurist Buckminster Fuller because of its resemblance to his geodesic dome–was the first to be discovered by Curl and his team. Fullerenes have truly revolutionized the applied and materials sciences, with implications for fields as disparate as medicine and solar energy. Large-scale engineering projects once deemed science fiction, such as space elevators, have entered the realm of possibility thanks to the work of Dr. Curl.

Curl began his science career at Rice Institute (now University), where he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1954. He went on to earn his PhD in chemistry from the University of California, Berkeley in 1957. Dr. Curl returned to Rice as a professor the next year, conducting research until his retirement in 2008, whereupon he became a Pitzer-Schlumberger Professor of Natural Sciences Emeritus at the school. He died in 2022 at the age of 88.

Design of the Nobel Prize Medal in Chemistry

Measuring 2.625 inches across and weighing a total of 174 grams, the 1996 Nobel Prize medal in Chemistry consists of 18-karat gold with 24-karat gold plating. Like other Nobel Prize medals, it features a portrait of Alfred Nobel, noted Swedish chemist, businessman, and philanthropist, designed by Swedish sculptor and medallist Erik Lindberg on the obverse or front. His name, slightly abbreviated, is inscribed in two lines to the left of Nobel’s face, and his birth and death dates are inscribed in Roman numerals behind his head. This particular front design is also used on the Physics and Medicine/Physiology medals.

The reverse of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry. Image: Nate D. Sanders Auctions.
The reverse of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry. Image: Nate D. Sanders Auctions.

The reverse or back features the personification of science or knowledge, SCIENTIA, unveiling a fertile nature, or NATURA, holding a cornucopia. Reading clockwise along the rim and starting at the 8 o’clock position is the Latin inscription INVENTAS VITAM IUVAT EX COLUISSE PER ARTES, taken from the Roman poet Vergil’s epic poem The Aeneid, Book VI, line 663. According to the Swedish Academy, who present the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, this translates to “It is beneficial to have improved (human) life through discovered arts.” In a cartouche beneath the central motif is Curl’s name (R.F.CURL, JR.) in the top line and 1996 in Roman numerals in the bottom line. To either side of this is half of the inscription REG.ACAD. SCIENT.SUEC. – “Swedish Royal Academy of Science” abbreviated in Latin.

Lindberg’s signature is located on the right side of the medal’s back, beneath the inscription SCIENTIA.

Nate D. Sanders Carves out a Niche

Interestingly, this is not the first Nobel Prize that Nate D. Sanders Auctions has sold in the last decade.

In May 2015, the company sold a Nobel Prize medal awarded to Dr. Leon M. Lederman for $765,002. On October 29 that same year, the firm sold the Medicine/Physiology medal awarded to Dr. Alan Lloyd Hodgkin in 1963 for his discoveries concerning nerve impulses in the human body for $795,614.

And most recently, on January 26, 2023, they sold the Nobel Prize medal awarded to chemist George A. Olah in 1994 for $250,000 (including buyer’s premium).

On May 26, 2016, Nate D. Sanders offered the Physics medal awarded to Dr. Kenneth Wilson in 1982, but the sale attracted no bids. Not everyone can participate in the market for Nobel Prize medals (again, the current offering only saw four bids), so this is not entirely surprising.

For more information about the auction of Dr. Curl’s medal, visit the archived lot page.

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Hubert Walker
Hubert Walker
Hubert Walker has served as the Assistant Editor of CoinWeek.com since 2015. Along with co-author Charles Morgan, he has written for CoinWeek since 2012, as well as the monthly column "Market Whimsy" for The Numismatist and the book 100 Greatest Modern World Coins (2020) for Whitman Publishing.

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