Auction preview: World’s earliest Nobel Prize to be offered by Heritage

The world’s oldest Nobel Prize ever offered at auction—awarded in 1902 to revered German scholar Theodor Mommsen for Advancements in Literature—will be presented by Heritage Auctions this January in New York.

Awarded a year before his death, the early rare gold medal celebrated Mommsen’s contributions and research on ancient Roman civilizations, said Marc Emory, Director of Heritage Auctions’ European Operations. The Nobel Prize will cross the block at no reserve during Heritage’s annual World Coin Auction, which will be held Jan. 7-8 in conjunction with the New York International Numismatic Convention. The auction takes place at New York’s Hyatt at Grand Central Station.

“Since the first Nobel Prize gold medals were awarded in 1901, this is one of the earliest, if not the earliest Nobel Prize medals ever offered at public auction,” Emory said. “Not only is it rare for Nobel Prize gold medals to appear at auction, it is particularly important when one is bestowed on one of humanity’s greatest minds.”


By Swedish sculptor and engraver Erik Lindberg, the medal’s obverse depicts leftward facing portions of Alfred Nobel with his name in left field and birth and death years in Roman numerals behind the bust.

The reverse depicts the allegorical nature and science figures at centre. The top legend reads “INVENTAS · VITAM · IUVAT EXCOLUISSE · PER · ARTES” (taken from the sixth book, verse 663 of Virgil’s Aeneid, translated as “inventions enhance life which is beautified through art”) while the bottom legend reads “REG · ACAD · SCIENT · SUEC” (“The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences”). The bottom panel reads “TH MOMMSEN / MCMII.”

This Uncirculated example described by auctioneers as “perfectly struck with satin-like surfaces” and “free of rim bruises with minor lustre grazes and a few minor instances of contact over both sides.”


Mommsen spent his life fascinated with history, especially that of ancient Rome. His research remains the foundation of today’s knowledge of the ancient civilization. Considered “the greatest living master of the art of historical writing,” Mommsen’s greatest literature achievement was Römische Geschichte (History of Rome), a three-volume work published between 1854 and 1856, covering the history of the Roman Republic through Caesar’s dictatorship.

He published more than 1,500 works, had 16 children and even left U.S. humorist and author Mark Twain star struck when the two met in 1892.

“Mommsen also laid a critical groundwork in the sphere of Roman numismatics,” Emory said, “establishing the Zeitschrift für Numismatik—a journal devoted to Roman coinage whose publications have been cited extensively by The Roman Imperial Coinage, the chief reference in the field. He also published publishing the fundamental Über das Römischen Münzwesens (History of the Roman Coinage), which helped form the foundations of the modern study of numismatics.”


Heritage Auctions has sold several Nobel Prize gold medals in recent years, achieving more than $2.2 million USD for Francis H. C. Crick’s Nobel Prize Medal and Nobel Diploma awarded for discoveries in human DNA.

Additional medals have realized six-figures auction values, including Francis Peyton Rous’s 1966 Nobel Medal for Medicine, which sold for $461,000 USD; Georg Wittig’s 1979 Nobel Prize Medal in Chemistry, which sold for $274,000 USD; and Walther Bothe’s Nobel Prize for Advancements in Physics, which sold for $129,500 USD.

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