Why An Idaho Scientist Is Selling His Nobel Prize

May 27, 2015

Leon Lederman was born in New York, spent much of his career in Illinois and now lives in Idaho. His wife says his favorite pastimes are sitting on the porch looking at the mountains and going to lunch with a group that calls itself the ROMEOs; Retired Old Men Eating Out.
Credit Wikimedia commons

Renowned physicist and Idaho resident Leon Lederman is selling his Nobel Prize medal. Lederman has contributed significantly to science’s understanding of subatomic particles, including neutrinos and quarks.

Lederman jokes he's selling his medal to buy an airplane. 

Lederman's wife, Ellen, says when her husband won the Nobel in 1988, he told the press he would use the prize money to buy race horses and a castle in Spain. Instead, they bought a house in the eastern Idaho town of Driggs. They moved there full time after Lederman retired from directing the Fermi National Accelerator Lab near Chicago.

Ellen says the real reason they decided to sell the medal is that 92-year-old Leon’s health is deteriorating and they may need the money for his care.

Leon Lederman is considered one of the great minds of the 20th century. Ellen says he has dementia and now often can’t remember things like why he won the Nobel Prize.

Ellen Lederman says winning the Nobel was a great honor but the medal itself has never meant that much to the couple. When visitors ask about it, she says they take the medal out of the cabinet and let their guests play with it. 

Ellen Lederman says the couple hadn't planned on selling the medal.  And when the Los Angeles-based auction company Nate D. Sanders Auctions reached out to them, she thought it was a scam. But she says the company checked out and the Ledermans decided to give it a try.

The minimum bid is $325,000 and the auction closes Thursday evening.    

Laura Yntema, the auction manager for Nate D. Sanders Auctions, says her company has sold two other Nobel Prize medals this year. One was for chemistry and one was for economics. Both fetched nearly $400,000.

“The person who buys it is going to be interested in the specific person and what they’ve accomplished,” Yntema says. “Leon Lederman won it for quantum physics. And there’s a community worldwide that’s really interested in physics and just will value it for that.”

Find Adam Cotterell on Twitter @cotterelladam

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