This Nobel medal won by Walter Kohn is on the auction block. It shows on the reverse side his name incised as “W. Kohn,” the year 1998 in Roman numerals below, and a relief of the Goddess Isis, whose veil is held up by a woman representing the genius of science. | Credit: Courtesy of Nate D. Sanders Auctions

The golden medallion awarded to Nobel laureate Walter Kohn for his breakthroughs in chemistry will be auctioned on January 27, along with three books on heat, matter, and pure math he had purchased while in a refugee camp in Canada.

Walter Kohn | Credit: Courtesy

Kohn was a much-loved and respected professor at UC Santa Barbara, who died in 2016, having come there in 1979 as the the founding director of the Institute of Theoretical Physics, now known as the Kavli Institute. Significantly, Kohn and his sister, Minna, had been rescued before the Holocaust in Austria by the Kindertransport, the relocation of Jewish children overseas that began after Kristallnacht, or the “Night of Broken Glass,” during which the Nazi party destroyed and defaced Jewish synagogues, schools, businesses, and homes in November 1938. He and Minna lost their parents in the Auschwitz death camp.

Kohn recalled his school years in his biographical Nobel statement. He had preferred Latin over mathematics in high school, but the pogroms of the ’30s closed schools in Vienna to him, but he was able to enter a Jewish school, the Chajes Gymnasium. There he met two extraordinary teachers: “In physics, Dr. Emil Nohel, and in mathematics Dr. Victor Sabbath. While outside the school walls arbitrary acts of persecution and brutality took place, on the inside these two inspired teachers conveyed to us their own deep understanding and love of their subjects. I take this occasion to record my profound gratitude for their inspiration to which I owe my initial interest in science. (Alas, they both became victims of Nazi barbarism).”

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Under the roofs of his new homes in both England and Canada, Kohn was encouraged to focus on his studies, and he attributed a great deal of his scientific knowledge and success to the families with which he lived. Nearly 10,000 children were transfered from Nazi-occupied territories to safety in Great Britian via the Kindertransport, but Kohn is the only survivor to receive a Nobel prize. It recognized Kohn’s achievement of the density functional theory, a modeling system that has allowed scientists to understand the nuclear structure of microscopic matter. The equations have become commonplace among scientists, the auction house prospectus explained, “with countless practical results deriving from it — from discovering trace impurities in chemicals to modeling planetary systems.”

Credit: Courtesy of Nate D. Sanders Auctions

His friend John Perlin was surprised to learn of the auction. They had met aboard Bus 24, which they both took daily to and from the university. Their conversations led to an exchange of one of Perlin’s books: “We met every weekend at his house for lunch, and after multiple discussions, I got a call from UCSB saying that Walter wanted me to direct a film called The Power of the Sun. I was just a guy from L.A. and didn’t have a background in physics, and Walter was a Nobel laureate who knighted me as a physicist.”

Kohn was 80 years old when they began the movie project, Perlin recalled, and even then his ability to change entire worldviews was very significant, especially pertaining to the history of light and global warming.

The availability of a Nobel medal for auction is neither rare nor common, said Laura Kirk, auction manager of Nate D. Sanders Auctions, which has offered a few dozen Nobel Prize medallions over the past five years. Replicas of the medal are made for family members, she said, and no information was available on who was selling the medal or why. 

“This is the first Nobel Prize auctioned that has been awarded to someone a part of the Kindertransport, and therefore it is too unique to anticipate a specific final price,” Kirk said. The bidding for the golden medal and the three books, however, starts at $275,000 and has been ongoing since January 22. The auction closes at 5 p.m. PST on January 27.

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