Losing a Nobel Prize

September 28, 2018

OSLO -- It’s easier to lose a Nobel Prize than to win one.

Smuggled out to impress girls in a bar, or dissolved to prevent the Nazis from getting their hands on one, the precious gold medals have gone missing in crazy, tragic or spectacular ways over the more than hundred-year history of the Nobel Prize.

Here are some of them:

Dissolved in acid

When the Nazis invaded Denmark in April 1940, scientists at Niels Bohr’s Institute for Theoretical Physics began to worry about the 1914 and 1925 Nobel Physics Prize gold medals that two German laureates — Max von Laue and James Frank — had placed there for safekeeping.

“In Hitler’s empire it was almost a capital offence to send gold out of the country, and, Laue’s name being engraved into the medal, the discovery of this by the invading forces would have had very serious consequences for him,” Hungarian chemist George de Hevesy, who was working at the Institute, wrote in 1962.

After being persuaded not to bury the medals as they could be unearthed, de Hevesy decided to dissolve the two 23-carat-gold discs with aqua regia acid mixture, the only solution able to do so.

Stored high up on a shelf in his laboratory, the orange-coloured liquid went unnoticed by the Nazis.

After the war was over, de Hevesy — who won the Nobel Prize himself in 1943 — turned the gold back into a precipitate in 1950. He gave it to the Nobel Foundation so it could be recast into two medals which were presented to the men in 1952.

In a less triumphant moment, Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun gave his Nobel Literature Prize medal to Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels in 1943.

A strong supporter of the Nazis, Hamsun was convicted of treason in 1947 and spent the rest of his life in mental institutions.

It is not known what became of his medal.

Sometimes, because of acts of charity, inheritance disputes or just because life can take odd turns, the Nobel medals end up for sale at auctions.

With varying results.

The Nobel Peace Prize won by Frenchman Aristide Briand in 1926 for his role in France and Germany’s short-lived post-war reconciliation was sold for the modest sum of just 12,200 euros ($14,000) in 2008.

Six years later, US scientist James Watson, who won the 1962 award for his co-discovery of the structure of DNA and who has made controversial remarks about Africans, sold his medal for a record $4.1 million excluding taxes.

A bonanza for the US biologist — especially after the buyer, Russian billionaire Alisher Usmanov, returned the medal to him.

There have also been times when medals have just disappeared.