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Sotheby’s to Auction Nobel Prize Medal in Literature March 1

Maeterlinck Nobel Prize
Maeterlinck Nobel Prize

By Hubert Walker for CoinWeek ….

Sotheby’s of New York is currently offering the Nobel Prize for Literature medal given to Belgian playwright Maurice Maeterlinck in 1911. Bidding on the one-of-a-kind gold medal, lot 107 in Sotheby’s Books and Manuscripts Auction, ends Wednesday, March 1, at 9:46 am EST.

The starting bid on this piece is 90,000 Euros (almost $95,000 USD at the time of writing). The auction house estimates that it could sell for as high as 120,000 Euros (almost $127,000 USD). Also included in this lot is the Moroccan leather diploma presented to Maeterlinck by the Swedish Academy, as well as Maeterlinck’s Triennial Prize for French Dramatic Literature, which he won in 1903.

The Nobel Prize for Literature was founded by the Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel in his will, which stipulated that an award be given annually to any writer from around the world who has “produced the most outstanding work in an idealistic direction.” The Prize is meant to honor a writer’s entire body of work over time, and every year the Swedish AcademySweden’s highest authority on matters of the Swedish language–is empowered to decide whom to award or even whether to give an award at all.

So far, Maeterlinck is the only Belgian to have won the Prize for Literature, and one of only 16 French-speaking winners of the award.

Please consult the Sotheby’s website for additional notices and disclaimers concerning this auction.

Design of the Nobel Prize for Literature Gold Medal

The medal consists of 206.98 grams of 22-karat (.916 fine) gold and has a diameter of 65 mm. On its obverse is a left-facing profile of Alfred Nobel, with the inscription ALFR. NOBEL in two lines to the left of the bust and his birth and death dates in Roman numerals to the right. The same design is used on the obverses of the Chemistry, Physics, and Medicine/Physiology medals.

The reverse features the nymph Erato, the muse of lyric poetry and one of the nine sister Muses of Greek Mythology, accompanying herself on a lyre while delivering a song to a receptive young man who sits under a laurel tree as he records her inspiration. Behind the muse is a rising sun not too dissimilar to that found on the classic Saint-Gaudens $20 gold double eagle and the contemporary American Gold Eagle obverses. Running along the rim clockwise from the left side is the Latin inscription INVENTAS VITAM IUVAT EX COLUISSE PER ARTES, a quote from the Roman poet Vergil’s nationalistic epic The Aeneid, Book VI, line 663. According to the Swedish Academy, this translates to “It is beneficial to have improved (human) life through discovered arts.” In the exergue beneath this tableau is a cartouche with the recipient’s name (M.MAETERLINCK) in one line and the year 1911 in Roman numerals below it. To either side of the cartouche is half of the inscription ACAD. SUEC. – an abbreviation of “Swedish Academy” in Latin.

The signature of the medal’s designer, Swedish sculptor and engraver Erik Lindberg, is located between Erato’s foot and the “I” in INVENTAS.

A Noticeable Trend

Maeterlinck’s medal is one of a small but growing number of Nobel Prize medals that have hit the auction block in recent years, with some garnering hammer prices in the millions.

The Nobel Prize in Physics medal belonging to Niels Bohr was sold by Heritage Auctions in 2019 for $108,000.

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry medal given to Georg Wittig in 1979 sold for $274,000 in 2016.

Controversial molecular biologist Dr. James D. Watson consigned his 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine medal to Christie’s in 2014 and earned a record-setting $4.76 million. Another 1962 Nobel Physiology and Medicine medal, this one awarded to Watson’s colleague Dr. Francis Crick, sold for $2.27 million at Heritage Auctions the year earlier.

And Russian journalist Dmitri Muratov’s 2021 Nobel Peace Prize medal was sold by Heritage in 2022. It raised $103.5 million to help the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) assist children and families in war-torn Ukraine.

Most recently, a medal awarded to hydrocarbon chemist George A. Olah in 1994 sold for $250,000 (including buyer’s premium) at Nate D. Sanders on January 22, 2023.

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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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