Morton & Eden Auction Features the 1943 Nobel Prize Medal for Chemistry

15 Nov 2017  Wed

Hungarian-born scientist George de Hevesy was awarded the Nobel prize for Chemistry. He concealed two other Nobel medals from the Nazis before receiving his own and will be offered at auction Nov.23 by Morton & Eden in London.

Listed as Lot 77 in the sale, de Hevesy's medal for 1943, bestowed in 1944, carries a pre-sale estimate of £120,000 to £150,000 ($157,507 to $196,884 in U.S. dollars).

Along with Hevesy’s Nobel Medal for Chemistry are three medals, he received for scientific research: the Royal Society’s silver-gilt Copley medal, designed by Mary Gillick and awarded in 1949; the Royal College of Physicians’ Baly Medal in silver by J.S. and A.B. Wyon, named and dated 1951; and the large gold Atoms for Peace Award by the Medallic Art Co., New York, dated 1958.

The founder of radioanalytical chemistry, de Hevesy was a joint discoverer in 1923 with Dirk Coster of the element hafnium. De Hevesy developed the use of radioactive isotopes as “tracers.” For this work he was awarded the Nobel prize medal; he simultaneously accepted the Nobel Institute's offer of Swedish citizenship.

The official citation for de Hevesy’s prize used the terms “isotopes” and “tracers”, terms either not yet coined or imbued with their scientific meaning when de Hevesy began his career in Manchester, England, in 1911, with Ernest Rutherford, who received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1908.

According to Morton & Eden, before de Hevesy was awarded his Nobel prize medal, he concealed two Nobel medals from the Nazis in 1940 and dissolved them in a solution of aqua regia, a mixture of nitric acid and hydrochloric acid.

Morton & Eden also added under the Third Reich in Germany and owning gold was declared illegal and could incur the death penalty.

“The medals were those of the German physicists Max von Laue and James Franck, Nobel laureates in 1914 and 1925 respectively, whose personally-named and potentially incriminating gold medals were stored at the Bohr Institute in Copenhagen. In the summer of 1940, Hevesy was working when the Germans invaded Denmark, he had to think quickly to hide the gold medals.

He initially rejected the idea of burying them and then thought of making them disappear by dissolving them in aqua regia, a mixture of nitric and hydrochloric acid. The flask containing its inconspicuous looking solution sat innocently on a shelf and stayed there undisturbed until the end of the War. Hevesy was then able to recover the gold by reversing the chemical process and subsequently return the reconstituted metal to the Nobel Foundation where it was duly used to make restrikes of the two medals. These were then re-awarded to both their original recipients in 1952.”

The de Hevesy Nobel medal, designed by Erik Lindberg, is struck in 23 karat gold, weighs 207.55 grams and is 66 millimeters in diameter. The obverse features a portrait left of Alfred Nobel. The reverse, inscribed INVENTAS VITAM IUVAT EXCOLUISSE PER ARTES, features allegorical figures — Science holding a scroll, unveiling Nature holding a cornucopia, with REG. ACAD. SCIENT. SUEC. below, divided by a panel engraved G. HEVESY DE HEVES / MCMXLIV. The edge is marked GULD and dated 1944.

According to the lot description, the piece has “light handling marks,” but is “otherwise virtually as struck, in its fitted display case of issue,” which, the lot description notes, is “slightly water-stained.”

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