The precious letters of DNA

Image of Gillian Tett

Imagine for a moment that you have just stumbled on the secret of life, aka the structure of DNA. Thrilled, you pen a letter to your 12-year-old son, outlining the discovery and concluding with the words “lots of love, Daddy.” Then, 60 years later, your children decide to sell that seven-page missive. What would it be worth? £10,000, £100,000, £1m or £10m?

It is not an academic question. Last week the letter that Francis Crick, a British scientist, really did write to his son in 1953, after he and his fellow scientist James Watson discovered the double helix structure of DNA, went to auction in New York. Before the sale, Christie’s had estimated that the letter – which starts, “Jim Watson and I have probably made a most important discovery” and describes DNA as something “beautiful … by which life comes from life” – would fetch around $800,000.

In the event, a mystery bidder paid $6m. And that was not the only shock: later in the week, the family of the deceased Crick also sold his Nobel Prize medal, a stained laboratory coat and a notebook for big sums too. The notebook fetched $21,250, triple the previous estimate, and the Nobel Prize medal was acquired for $2.27m by Jack Wang, chief executive of Biomobie, an Asian-American biomedical company.

Is this price tag mad? As luck would have it, on the very same day that Crick’s letter was sold for $6m, I had dinner with James Watson, now 85, at his apartment in New York. As he sat at his elegant table – surrounded by framed pictures celebrating the discovery of DNA and his subsequent work at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island – Watson was (unsurprisingly) thrilled. After all, a $6m price tag could be read as one sign that some people (or parts of society) still value sciences. Better still, modern scientists are benefiting in a very practical sense: Crick’s family is donating much of the proceeds to research.

There could be more largesse to come: over dinner I learnt that Watson himself still owns plenty more memorabilia from that period. This includes, for example, an early manuscript of his pioneering book The Double Helix, with his editing notes scribbled in the margin, and his Nobel Prize medal. Or more accurately there are two medals: what the Nobel Prize committee apparently does is give its prize winners both a “real” gold medal and a bronze replica (the former is supposed to sit in a vault and the latter be worn). Either way, both can be sold. But as scientists now scurry to work out the modern market value of all those letters or medals that they might own, it seems to me that there is a certain historical irony here. If Crick and Watson had discovered DNA in 2013, not 1953, they probably would not have bothered to pen letters to their kids: instead, they might have dispatched several emails (or tweets). Similarly, if Watson were editing The Double Helix now, he would undoubtedly be fiddling on a computer screen. 

In some ways, this modern form of electronic communication is far more efficient when it comes to scientific research (and much else). But here’s the rub: digital messages have less permanence or exclusivity. Emails can be deleted and edits to computer documents can only be spotted (for a while) via “track changes”. To put it another way, if historians look back at 2013 in 60 years’ time, they will see an age when the volume of communication exploded in scale (indeed the amount of information created in the past two years outstrips everything previously generated on this planet). But they will also see a period when that communication was so fleeting and ubiquitous that it had lost its value. Nobody is ever likely to pay $6m to purchase a tweet.

Maybe future generations will not mind: the digital revolution brings numerous benefits too (one practical upside, for example, is that institutions such as the British Library and New York Public Library can now use the internet to allow schoolchildren to peruse original historical documents online, to liven up their curriculum). Personally though, I cannot help feeling that something precious is also being lost, amid this tsunami of computer code.

Either way, the one clear conclusion is that auctioneers have reason to lick their lips. For as more and more money and emails swirl around the planet, the value of tangible historical documents – like scientific letters – is likely only to rise. For today’s newly rich elite in New York, San Francisco or Moscow it is already too easy to buy fabulous mansions or art; but grabbing a one-of-a-kind piece of “real” history carries cachet and intellectual gravitas. Rarity, after all, confers status and “cultural capital”, as Pierre Bourdieu, the French anthropologist liked to say. So I am no longer surprised by that $6m price tag – nor that it beat earlier records. (In 2002 Christie’s sold for just over £2m a letter that Albert Einstein wrote to President Franklin D. Roosevelt warning about the potential of nuclear weapons, while a letter Abraham Lincoln wrote to some schoolchildren sold for $3.4m in 2008.) The only question now is how many more historical documents will find their way to market in the next few years?

All eyes on those auction houses; and on the dusty files of elderly statesmen, writers and academics – as well as revered scientists like Watson himself.

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