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6-min read

How to Not Lose a Nobel: Abhijit Banerjee Needs to Beware of Thieves, Corrosive Acid and Tax Evasion

When it comes to Nobels, the country has quite a history.

Rakhi Bose | News18.com@theotherbose

Updated:October 15, 2019, 5:31 PM IST
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How to Not Lose a Nobel: Abhijit Banerjee Needs to Beware of Thieves, Corrosive Acid and Tax Evasion
News18 creative/Mir Suhail.

India has no dearth of Nobel laureates. It has produced five winners across fields including Rabindranath Tagore (Literature), CV Raman (Physics), Mother Teresa (Peace), Amartya Sen (Economics) and Kailash Satyarthi (Peace). Apart from them, four Indian origin persons including Har Gobind Khorana, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, Venkatraman Ramakrishnan and most recently, Bengal's Abhijit V Banerjee.

However, now that the Nobel victory is underway, Banerjee, who won the award for his "experimental approach to alleviating poverty", must take note of a grave issue that could be facing him - how to protect his Nobel Prize from thieves or worse.

As Banerjee basks in the glory and success of his Nobel victory, Indians too have been feeling festive and celebratory. After all, Banerjee is not some obscure Indian-origin intellectual, only known in the more erudite, literary circles but India's very own, homegrown economic genius.

Banerjee, who is an alumnus of South Point School in Kolkata, received higher education from Presidency College and later Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University, before moving on to Harvard. The local popularity of all these institutions has made Banerji's victory just a little more accessible. But in India, anything that shines is in possible danger of luring thieves.

As per 2016 National Crime Records Bureau data, 7,96,032 cases of offenses against property were reported out of which 4,94,404 or over 62 percent involved theft. Criminal trespassing and burglaries accounted for 1,11,746 cases. And when it comes to Nobels, the country has quite a history.

Tagore's Nobel: Bengal's heirloom

The first Nobel Prize ever to be won by an Indian, Rabindranath Tagore in 1913, was stolen and has not yet been found. The medal along with his Nobel citation was housed in Shantiniketan's Visva Bharati University’s museum in Bengal. However, in March 2004, the Nobel citation along with other possessions of Tagore were stolen from the museum, much to the dismay of Bengalis, many of whom treat the Nobel as Bengal's collective legacy and an heirloom that can be shared by all. Post the theft, the then Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee government in Bengal was prompt to hand over the case to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). The case soon became a political matter. CBI closed the case due to lack of evidence in 2007, only to reopen it under political pressure in 2008 and then shut it again in 2009. However, in 2016, an SIT which was formed to look into the matter after CM Mamata Banerjee insisted the case be given to the state, arrested Baul singer Pradip Bauri from Ruppur, Birbhum in connection with the theft.

According to reports, Bauri was an accomplice and had knowledge of the entire episode and of those involved in the theft. Bauri, who was the gram panchayat pradhan of Ruppur from 1998 to 2003, had allegedly given shelter to the culprits involved in stealing the medal and also helped them flee the state.

The Nobel has not been found, despite authorities cracking down on the thieves and for many, the loss of the Nobel continues to sting. In June 2017, the CBI refused to return the case to the state government, urging acerbic reactions from Mamata Banerjee who accused them of not being "serious" about the Nobel's recovery. In 2004, India acquired two replicas of the medal in a gold and bronze cast from Sweden. Though the original had come for free, the replicas, The Telegraph had reported then, came with a price of almost Rs 2 lakh.

Satyarthi's Nobel: Lost and Found

The high profile burglary in Nobel Laureate Kailash Satyarthi's New Delhi home in February 2017 created a national buzz. Among other valuables, the burglars stole the gold-plated replica of Satyarthi's Nobel medal, which he had won for his "struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of all children to education." He shared the Peace prize with Pakistan's Malala Yousafzai in 2014. However, unlike Tagore's Nobel (which was not a replica), Satyarthi's replica medal was quickly traced to three people who were arrested for the theft. The replica is now back in Satyarthi's possession, the original having been gifted by him to the President.

Indians aren't the only ones playing fast and loose with their medals

Heritage Museum Ecomusee of Saint-Nazaire in France bought former French Foreign Minister Aristide Briand's medal at a dirt cheap price of $1,400 in 2008. However, it was soon stolen in 2015 and is yet to be recovered.

In 1999, the Nobel medal awarded to the Doctors Without Borders (MSF) disappeared for a night, right after being awarded. After a night of frantic searching, it was returned to the spot. Turns out members of the French MSF delegation that had gone to receive the award had "borrowed" it to impress women in the bars of Oslo.

1985 Peace Prize joint winner Kay Miller's medal was also stolen in 2006. However, it later turned up inside the trunk of a car, along with dozens of driving licences. The thief was being investigated for a case of domestic abuse when cops, searching his car, found the valuable memento. The man had previously lived in Miller's basement.

Other ways to lose a Nobel

Other than losing them to thieves, laureates have plenty of ways to lose a Nobel medal. In 1940s Denmark when the Nazis invaded and ran amok on the streets of Copenhagen, scientist Neils Bohr had very little time to destroy two Nobel medals - belonging to German physicists Max von Laue and James Frank. The medals were placed in his safekeeping and were housed at the Neils Bohr Institute of Theoretical Physics. However, Hitler was against the sending out of gold to any other country and finding the medals in Copenhagen would spell trouble for the physicists whose names were to be found engraved at the back. Deciding against burying the medals, Bohr decided to (and managed to) dissolve the medals in aqua regia acid mixture, the only substance that at the time could dissolve 23-carat gold discs without leaving a trace. Breaking Bad, much, Mr Bohr?

If it's not stolen or dissolved, then it can be taken. That's what happened to Iranian human rights activist and lawyer Shirin Ebadi's Nobel in 2009. She claimed that the Iran government had "confiscated" her Nobel medal along with her Legion of Honour medal over unpaid taxes. The Iranian government denied it.

What can you do with a stolen Nobel?

The price of a Nobel can vary. Apart from the prize money that comes as part of the award (about 1.1 million USD to be received individually or split between two or more recipients), the gold itself costs its weight. Though the exact weight of a Nobel medal could vary, each medal contains 18 carats of green gold, plated with 24 karats of pure gold.

Apart from its weight in gold, the Nobel can indeed be of extremely high value if sold at an auction. Russian billionaire Alisher Usmanov bought American scientist James Watson's Nobel medal for $4.1 million, only to give it back to him. However, in case of stolen Nobels, legal auctions are not possible so if money is what one are after, stealing a Nobel makes little sense as melting the gold and selling it is mostly the only option.

However, becoming a Nobel thief may feel like a privilege. After all, the Nobel thieves' club is as exclusive (if not more) as that of Nobel winners.

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