Auctions | February 3, 2016

Bonhams Offers Notable Nobel Prize

image004.pngLOS ANGELES - Bonhams announces the sale of the 1993 Nobel Prize medal awarded to renowned biochemist Dr. Kary B. Mullis for his groundbreaking invention of the Polymerase Chain Reaction (P.C.R.). The Nobel Prize is estimated at U.S. $450,000-550,000 and is featured in Bonhams’ Fine Books and Manuscripts sale on Feb. 14 at the Sheraton Pasadena Hotel, coinciding with the 49th California International Antiquarian Book Fair.

To study DNA, you must be able to see it. In 1983, Mullis invented a process which amplified a single sequence of DNA into a size large enough to be visible in the laboratory. The technique revolutionized many aspects of genetic research, including diagnosis of genetic defects, detection of the AIDS virus in human cells and cloning. It also helped make remarkable strides in forensic science and evolutionary studies.

When Dr. Mullis was awarded the 1993 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said the invention had “hastened the rapid development of genetic engineering” and “greatly stimulated biochemical research … [opening] the way for new applications in medicine and biology.”

"Take all the MVPs from professional baseball, basketball, and football. Throw in your dozen favorite movie stars and a half dozen rock stars for good measure, add all the television anchor people now on the air, and collectively, we have not affected the current good or the future welfare of mankind as much as Kary Mullis." —Ted Koppel, ABC News-Nightline


DNA was first identified in the 19th century, and its three-dimensional double helix structure famously described in 1953 by James Watson and Francis Crick (for which the two men received the 1962 Nobel Prize in Chemistry). Little progress was made in unlocking the secrets of DNA after Watson and Crick, however, because creating usable samples in the laboratory was a tedious process, sometimes taking six months or more.

During the 1980s, while a chemist at the Cetus Corporation in Emeryville, CA, Dr. Mullis was frustrated by the long and difficult process necessary to produce DNA samples for study. In May of 1983, while driving out for a weekend in the country, he had an “aha!” moment inspired by his knowledge of computer programming, in which he discovered a way to exponentially increase the size of a DNA sample by repeatedly heating and cooling it. Over the summer Mullis worked on his idea, eventually coming up with a prototype machine, initially dismissed by his employers, but now indispensable to medical and biological research. 

Mullis describes the process in his book, Dancing Naked in the Mind Field: “If I could locate a thousand sequences out of billions with one short piece of DNA, I could use another short piece to narrow the search. This one would be designed to bind to a sequence just down the chain from the first sequence I had found. It would scan over the thousand possibilities out of the first search to find just the one I wanted. And using the natural properties of DNA to replicate itself under certain conditions that I could provide, I could make that sequence of DNA between the sites where the two short search strings landed reproduce the hell out of itself.”

Other auction highlights include:

  • First edition of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species, estimated at U.S. $70,000-90,000
  • Second edition of Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus (Basel: 1566) proposing the revolutionary theory that the earth revolves around the sun and not the other way around, estimated at U.S. $80,000-120,000
  • An autograph manuscript by Isaac Newton in Latin and English, entitled: “Praeparatio mercurij ad lapidem per regulu/ am ferrum et Lunam , ex mss. Phi Americani” [Preparation of mercury to a stone through metallic antinomy and silver: from a manuscript of an American philosopher] with an estimate of U.S. $100,000-150,000.

View the catalogue online. Auction preview hours (open to the public): In San Francisco, Feb. 4 from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. PST; Feb. 5 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. PST; and Feb. 6 from 12 p.m.-5 p.m. PST. In Pasadena, Feb. 11 from 1 p.m.-7 p.m. PST; Feb. 12 from 10 a.m.-7 p.m. PST; Feb. 13 from 10 a.m.-7 p.m. PST; and Feb. 14 from 8 a.m.- 10 a.m. PST.

For more information and/or high-resolution images, contact Kristin Guiter at (917) 206-1692 or (U.S.) or (U.K.).

Bonhams, founded in 1793, is one of the world's largest auctioneers of fine art and antiques. Today, the auction house offers more sales than any of its rivals. The main salerooms are in London, New York and Hong Kong. Sales are also held in the UK in Knightsbridge, Oxford and Edinburgh; in the U.S., in San Francisco and Los Angeles; in Europe, in Paris and Stuttgart and in Sydney, Australia. Bonhams also has a worldwide network of offices and regional representatives in 25 countries offering sales advice and valuation services in 60 specialist areas. For a full listing of forthcoming sales, plus details of Bonhams specialist departments, please visit

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