A Handwritten Letter Sells for a Record $6 Million-Plus

- by Michael Stillman

Fcrickletter

Francis Crick's “Secret of Life” letter to his son.

On April 10, the highest price ever paid for a letter at auction was achieved at Christie's in New York. If there was any doubt about the growing interest in more ephemeral sorts of works on paper, this should help put it to rest. At over $6 million, or 3 to 6 times the estimate range, there was no shortage of serious interest.

The letter itself is something of a surprise. It was not from one of the great world leaders, a Lincoln, Churchill, or Napoleon. It was not from the most famous of scientists, a Galileo, Kepler, or Newton. It was not even very old, written just sixty years ago. The writer only died in the last decade, his partner and the recipient are still living (and attended the auction). While his name is well-recognized in the scientific community, if you interviewed people on the street and asked who Francis Crick is, most would probably respond with blank stares. What we now know about him is that, along with being a great scientist, he wrote a letter worth $6 million. Obviously, he is more important than the typical man on the street realizes.

For those who have forgotten, Francis Crick, along with his partner, James Watson, discovered the nature of the DNA molecule. To put it more bluntly, they discovered how physical characteristics, and life itself, is transmitted from one individual to another. They were first to understand how the DNA molecule could copy itself, and thereby transmit life to another. Crick and Watson had been working on models of the DNA molecule, trying to break the code. On the last day of February, 1953, they had their voilà moment. They suddenly realized how everything must fit together within the molecule for it all to work.

Crick was not shy in recognizing its importance. He announced to others, only “half-jokingly” as Watson would later write, that they had found “the secret of life.” The two spent March busily constructing models to get it down right, and began to prepare a paper they would submit to Nature magazine on April 2 announcing their discovery. It was during this period that Crick would write his $6 million letter. It was not directed to a fellow scientist or researcher. Instead, it was sent to a 12-year-old boy. That boy was Michael Crick, Francis's son, off at boarding school. Crick regularly explained such things to his son, who was interested in secret codes, so this clearly would have fascinated him. In his letter, Crick explains as clearly as possible what has been discovered. This is the first known written explanation of the discovery, and probably the only first account of such a major scientific discovery to conclude with the line, “Lots of love, Daddy.”

Francis Crick begins his letter modestly with, “Jim Watson and I have probably made a most important discovery. We have built a model for the structure of des-oxy-ribose-nucleic-acid (read it carefully) called D.N.A. You may remember that the genes of the chromosomes - which carry the hereditary factors - are made up of protein and D.N.A. Our structure is very beautiful.” He goes on to say, “...we think we have found the basic copying mechanism by which life comes from life.” He also explains in more detail how its reproduction works, and even provides a crude drawing of their double helix model. Crick promises to show the model to his 12-year-old son when he comes home.

The importance of the discovery and the significance of this letter was well understood by Christie's. Its existence has long been known, it carrying the sobriquet of the “Secret of Life” letter. They slapped an estimate of $1 - $2 million on it. Not even they were prepared for what happened. By the time the bidding stopped, the price had crossed the $6 million mark (including commissions). The final price was $6,059,750. The letter was purchased by an unnamed buyer who placed a bid by telephone.

The auction included only two other items, both relating to Crick, and both easily surpassing estimates. An early 1950s four-page manuscript notebook, estimated at $4,000-$6,000, sold for $21,250. A pencil drawing of Crick by his wife, Odile, estimated at $8,000 - $12,000, went for $17,500. Odile Crick was an artist, though she is best known for her drawing of the double helix used by her husband and Watson.