What you see: The Nobel Prize for Physics, awarded to Richard Feynman in 1965 for his contributions to creating a new quantum electrodynamics. Sotheby’s estimates it at $800,000 to $1.2 million.
The expert: Cassandra Hatton, vice president and senior specialist for books and manuscripts at Sotheby’s.
In the press release for the sale and in the raw lot notes for the Nobel Prize, Feynman is described as a “rock star of physics” and “one of the most beloved scientists of all time.” What makes him so? I think what earns him the title of the “rock star of physics” is his personality–who he was as a human, and his intellectual capacity. If you look at other physicists of his caliber, you don’t see relatable humans with the same intellect. You could compare Feynman to Einstein, but Feynman loved teaching, and it was more important to him than theoretical work. Rock stars transcend their genres. They’re not just musicians. Feynman transcended his work. He would always say there’s nothing magical here, that he was just very curious, worked hard on the questions, and figured it out. But he inspired people, and he imparted excitement to people.
Feynman died 30 years ago, but he’s just as popular now as he was when he was alive. How has he managed to persist? Why hasn’t his memory faded? Partly it’s because of his personality, who he was. A lot of scientists are best known for their work. With others, the subject that won the prize is far more famous than the person who did the work. Because Feynman was such a popular figure, he was able to stay popular.
Have his books and his former students played a role in keeping his memory alive? He taught so many people who went on to teach other people who are super-successful and doing things they love to do. Not all are physicists, but they apply what they learned from Feynman to their lives. One of his biggest lessons was to enjoy life and enjoy what you’re doing. I’ve met many of his students, and they’re generally happy, fun-loving people. And I think the books definitely help.
It’s interesting that Feynman’s fame persists without the help of an Academy Award-winning film, such as A Beautiful Mind. At the end of the day, an Oscar-winning film is just an Oscar-winning film. Feynman doesn’t need a film. He became his own legend. He’s one of the rare people who was human, fun-loving, and also a fun-loving genius. He defied the stereotype of the scientist in a lab, not interacting people, with no social skills. He was the opposite of that.
Feynman won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1965 for work on quantum electrodynamics. Using non-technical language, can you explain why his contribution to science was such a big deal? Feynman was asked the same question, and he said, “Hell, if I could explain it to the average person, it wouldn’t have been worth the Nobel prize.” To be frank, I don’t understand it completely.
Feynman was one of three who earned the 1965 prize for work on this problem. Did he work directly with his fellow winners, Julian Schwinger and Sin-Itiro Tomonaga? They were all working on similar problems independently, but they knew about each other and were aware of each other’s work. Schwinger and Tomonaga took a mathematical approach to how to reconcile quantum mechanics, a 19th century science, with quantum electrodynamics, a 20th century science. Feynman’s approach was completely original and took a completely different direction. One of the ways he explained it it was by coming up with Feynman diagrams [click those words to see what a Feynman diagram looks like]. Those diagrams really revolutionized how we do quantum electrodynamics. They’re standard now.
How did Feynman learn that he’d won the Nobel Prize? He got a phone call at 4 am from a reporter. My understanding is he was unhappy about it [both the crazy-early phone call and the news of the win]. He asked his wife, Gweneth, how he could get out of it. He had a good life, and he knew the win would change things. I think the way it goes is she said, ‘Dear, the publicity would be worse if you don’t accept the prize.’ So he went to Stockholm and ended up having a great time. Feynman had been raised with a suspicion of institutions and authority. [Receiving the prize] played into his reluctance, because it was another symbol of the establishment. But he realized the machine had started running, and it’s harder to stop the machine than go along with it.
What did Feynman do with his share of the Nobel Prize money? He spent part of it on a vacation house in Mexico, and he bought a van. There’s an episode of The Big Bang Theory in which they take the Richard Feynman van and drive down to Mexico and stay in Richard Feynman’s vacation home.
Have the other two Nobel Prizes in Physics for 1965 come to auction? No. I keep a spreadsheet of all the Nobel Prizes ever sold. I’ve been obsessed with the market for Nobels for a long time–I started tracking them in 2012. They have not come up.
How have you seen the market for Nobel Prizes change over time? A few had come up, three or four, since 1988. Then Francis Crick’s Nobel sold at Heritage Auctions for $2.2 million in 2013, and it kind of sparked a flurry. It was the highest price ever paid for a Nobel, and it really got a lot of attention. It was followed by James Watson’s Nobel Prize selling at Christie’s in 2014 for $4.7 million. What’s really interesting is most of what we sell has no inherent value, but the story is what is valuable. Whereas a Nobel Prize actually has a value. Prizes minted before 1985 are made from 23-karat solid gold. Depending on the value of gold, they’re worth about $10,000. Prizes minted after 1985 are plated with 24-karat gold.
The price range for Nobel Prizes at auction is all over the place. Which ones sell for the most money? I’ve been trying to figure out which categories are worth more. The fewer the words you need to explain why a person won the Nobel, the more it sells for. With Watson, it’s “DNA.” No need to explain. “DNA” is enough. With Feynman, you can just say “Feynman.” No one is going to ask me to explain quantum electrodynamics, thank God.
How often does Feynman material come up at auction? It’s super-rare. There have been two manuscripts by Feynman to come to market. One was at Sotheby’s in 2006–lecture notes from one of his students, who was helping transcribe them. The other was a sheet of calculations he signed to Egon Lehmkuhl, which sold at Sotheby’s in 2008. Do you know who bought that?
No. I bought it. I was a dealer at the time. I sold it and I started looking for Feynman material obsessively. Those two manuscripts that came up were total flukes. All his material is in the archives at Caltech. Since then, four copies of Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! that he signed and gave to friends have come up. One of them sold at Sotheby’s last year for $43,750.
What else comes with the Nobel Prize as part of the lot? There’s the Nobel, the box it comes in, the diploma, and two programs. One says things like ‘the limo comes at this time, this is a white-tie party, you’ll eat this meal.’ The other is a program with translations of the Nobel speeches. On the back, Feynman has doodled Feynman diagrams. To get Feynman diagrams on the back of a Nobel Prize ceremony program is pretty cool.
Has a Feynman diagram drawn by Feynman ever gone to auction before? Prior to this, no. There are other manuscript lots in the sale that have Feynman diagrams.
I’m surprised that more Feynman material hasn’t managed to escape to the market, here and there. Yeah. Again, because he gave just about everything to Caltech, what stayed at his house were things he probably thought weren’t important. But when you look at them, you realize they’re extremely important. Final manuscripts don’t tell you much. How he gets there is much more interesting. What you see in the manuscripts [offered in other lots in the November 30 sale] is how he gets there. You see how he gets from A to Z.
What other Feynman pieces are in the sale? There are about 40 lots. They include a tambourine, very conveniently signed by him, thank you Richard Feynman, which he bought in Copacabana, Brazil. He talks about it in Surely, You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, and it’s torn from being played too much. There’s his undergraduate copy of Paul Dirac’s The Principles of Quantum Mechanics, with his handwritten annotations. Some [pages] have very heavy annotation. One says ‘prove this one day’ or ‘figure it out one day’–it’s the book that made Feynman Feynman. [Later she clarified: The notation is “analyze this some day”, and it’s in a section about the polarization of photons.] There are transcripts from the Oppenheimer hearing. There are some arithmetic books from his undergraduate years. The books are really, really interesting. He lived in a frat house at MIT. One book has his MIT address and his address in Far Rockaway. Then another book just has the MIT address–a shift that says ‘This is my home now.’ There are clues that tell you about the young Feynman.
Whoa, whoa. What was it like for you to look through all that stuff? Honestly, I teared up. I could not believe it. I could not believe it. I had said to a colleague the year before that the only Nobel Prize I wanted to sell is Richard Feynman’s. To get that call… I’m a specialist in science and technology. I don’t talk about fate, but it felt like cosmic alignment to get that call.
The estimate on the Feynman Nobel Prize is $800,000 to $1.2 million. The world auction record for a Nobel Prize is $4.7 million. Do you think Feynman’s has a chance to approach or beat the record? I’m optimistic it will exceed the estimate, but at the end of the day, it’s just an estimate. I don’t know how it will do until the day of the auction, but it’s not… it’s such a weird thing to say, but it’s not a regular Nobel Prize. Because Richard Feynman is a celebrity, he’s in a different category. There’s no comparable [no lot sold before at auction] that’s exactly like it. It’s an unusual situation. The work [that the Nobel Prize recognizes] is tremendously important and the personality is tremendously important. That Venn diagram is what buyers look for.
The Nobel Prize world auction record belongs to one that was awarded to a scientist. Why? Why hasn’t a Nobel Prize for Literature or Peace sold for more? Part of it is looking at the demographics of the buyers. If you look at the Forbes 500, a lot of the wealth today comes from or relates to science. And a lot of people are motivated by nostalgia, a time when they were happy and young. With Feynman, bidders remember studying his work in college or reading Surely, You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, and being inspired by him. It’s not that Nobel Prizes for Peace or Literature are less important. There are just fewer buyers.
How many Nobel Prizes have you handled? How is this one different? I’ve handled six or less. The others were certainly important and exciting, but this one got my pulse going. You try not to be, how can I say it, emotionally involved in a sale, because sometimes, things don’t sell. This is something I’ve been obsessed with. Feynman is my favorite scientist of all time. I’ve got pictures of him in my office. I don’t know how I’m going to top this one, let’s put it like that.
Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Sotheby’s.
Cassandra Hatton spoke to The Hot Bid in July 2018 about an Apollo 13 space-flown flight plan, which ultimately sold for $275,000–more than six times its high estimate.
If you haven’t yet read Surely, You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! yet, you have a treat ahead of you. Purchase it from an independent bookseller, such as The Strand Bookstore in New York City.
In case you missed it above, here’s the link to background on the Feynman van, as well as a website about Feynman himself.
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