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Analytical Chemistry


Nobel Auctions, Creamy Calibration Reagents

by Mitch Garcia
May 11, 2015 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 93, Issue 19


Credit: Nate D. Sanders
Aurum: The 1927 Chemistry Nobel Prize, shown, is worth more than its weight in gold.
A photograph of the 1927 Nobel prize in chemistry.
Credit: Nate D. Sanders
Aurum: The 1927 Chemistry Nobel Prize, shown, is worth more than its weight in gold.

Obtaining the gold medal for a Nobel Prize in Chemistry takes persistence, a dash of brilliance, a touch of serendipity, and a heavy dose of intellectual moxie. Alternatively, it could take just $395,000. That is the amount an anonymous bidder paid for Heinrich O. Wieland’s 1927 Nobel Prize medal at auction late last month.

Wieland was awarded the Nobel for his work on bile acids and related substances. The presenter of the Nobel Prize, H. G. Söderbaum, described the work as “one of the most difficult which organic chemistry has had to tackle.” Bile acids are a type of steroid acid synthesized by the liver to promote digestion and absorption of dietary fats in the small intestine. Wieland is also credited, along with Adolf O. R. Windaus and others, for determining the chemical structure of cholesterol, which plays a major role in a variety of cardiovascular diseases.

During World War II, Wieland was a professor at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich. He invited Jewish students, who had been expelled from the university because of their ancestry, to join his research group as “Gäste des Geheimrats” (guests of the privy councilor).

This was the first time a Nobel Prize in Chemistry had been on the auction block, according to Sam Heller, a spokesmanfor auctioneer Nate D. Sanders Inc., and it was the second time his auction house had sold a Nobel medal. In February, Nate D. Sanders also handled the sale of Simon Kuznets’s 1971 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences; the medal sold for $390,848.

The highest bidder to date for a Nobel Prize medal goes to Alisher Usmanov, a Russian entrepreneur, who paid $4.8 million for James Watson’s 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine medal. After Usmanov won the auction last December, he immediately returned the medal to Watson with the hope that Watson would use the proceeds to support scientific research.

If you want a chemical curio but Nobel Prize medals are out of your budget, then you may want to consider a $254 jar of peanut butter sold by the U.S. government. Uncle Sam’s creamy creation went viral recently when an image of Standard Reference Material (SRM) 2387 started making rounds throughout the Internet. SRM 2387 is prepared by the National Institute of Standards & Technology (NIST) and is used as a calibration standard for nutritional information in analytical laboratories.

Credit: Jon Bruner
Freedom legumes: This peanut butter won’t violate EH&S lab safety regulations.
A photograph of NIST’s peanut butter.
Credit: Jon Bruner
Freedom legumes: This peanut butter won’t violate EH&S lab safety regulations.

Astute Newscripts readers may remember K. M. Reese covered this topic in a June 2, 2003, issue of C&EN in which he mentioned that NIST had made 2,800 jars of standard reference peanut butter. Melissa Phillips, a research chemist at NIST, tells Newscripts that of the 2,800 jars originally produced, approximately 80% have been sold since 2003. She adds that the most common customers of SRM 2387 are “food companies; academic laboratories; and state, federal, and foreign government laboratories.”

Peanut butter isn’t the only eyebrow-raising SRM that NIST sells. NIST also provides reference materials for meat homogenate (SRM 1546a, $609), baking chocolate (SRM 2384, $1,006), a freeze-dried “typical diet” (SRM 1548a, $912), and whale blubber (SRM 1945, $639). Phillips says, “NIST also provides numerous reference materials for chemical composition in other areas, including health and industrial hygiene, geological materials, forensics, fossil and alternative fuels, and ceramics and glasses.”

NIST peanut butter’s premium price might suggest that it could be an accoutrement used by the fancy New York City restaurant Le Bernardin. But in 2003, when the peanut butter standard story first broke, New York Times’s restaurant critic William Grimes described the flavor as “muted” and lacking “the creamy, unctuous quality of store-bought brands.” You might just be better off picking up a $4.00 jar of Jif.

Mitch Garcia wrote this week’s column. Please send comments and suggestions to


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