Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

A Price on the Priceless

April 16th, 2010 · 1 Comment

Our hearts got out to Roy Glauber, a Nobel Laureate physicist who was recently victimized by an extremely dumb burglar. (Note to aspiring master criminals: Don’t leave your food-stamp cards at the scene.) Though the local cops have nabbed the crook, they’ve so far been unable to locate Glauber’s Nobel gold medal, which he received five years ago for his work on the quantum theory of optical coherence. That makes us wonder if the burglar actually managed to fence one of the most sought-after prizes on Earth—and if so, what sort of loot he was able to wrangle.

While those Nobel gold medals are certainly rare, they aren’t quite as precious as you might think. Up until 1980, the 200-gram tokens were minted from 23-carat gold. But then Sweden’s equivalent of the IRS got concerned, stating that the medals were so valuable that winners were technically bound to pay taxes upon taking possession of the baubles. And so the prizes were downgraded, to mere 18-carat green gold coated in a thin veneer of 24-carat gold. Based on current sky-high metals prices, then, selling the contents of a melted-down Nobel prize should only fetch about $5,500 under perfect conditions.

Fencing burgled items, of course, is far from ideal for a seller. In fact, fences usually only pay two to seven cents on the dollar for stolen goods, with particularly “hot” items tending toward the bottom of that scale. (We assume a Nobel prize qualifies as rather scorching, given its uniqueness.) Therefore, if the burglar did manage to sell Glauber’s medal, he probably got no more than $110 for a symbol representing approximately seven decades worth of ingenious work.

As an aside, we explored the whole pawn-shop scene in this 2000 New York Times Magazine piece. Alas, we couldn’t work in the part about the heroin addict we accompanied to the local DMV, so he could obtain an identity card and sell his uncle’s pistol. Rough times in Brass City back then.


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One Comment so far ↓

  • jackal

    Poor Roy Glauber! I was lucky enough to be around at his dept. as a student when he won, cookies, champagne and all that. He’s a giant in the field and was rather friendly when I met him

    Interesting that the earlier medals were more valuable — I got to handle and take a picture with Betrand Russell’s medal from 1950 or so (for literature); oddly enough all of russell’s archives are at mcmaster university in canada (i hope thieves don’t read this). Including the last letter einstein ever wrote. But yeah, those medals (the old ones at least) are rather hefty.. and just feel substantive.