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A Russian editor auctioned his Nobel Prize to help Ukraine. It fetched $103.5 million

Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov speaks during the auction of his 2021 Nobel Peace Prize medal in New York on Sunday.
Kena Betancur
AFP via Getty Images
Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov speaks during the auction of his 2021 Nobel Peace Prize medal in New York on Sunday.

Updated June 21, 2022 at 10:14 AM ET

Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov announced back in March that he would auction off his Nobel Peace Prize medal to raise money for Ukrainian refugees.

On Monday night it sold for a record-breaking $103.5 million, with all of the proceeds going to UNICEF's child refugee fund, Heritage Auctions announced.

Online bidding had opened on June 1 (to coincide with International Children's Day) and live bidding took place in New York City on Monday (which happened to be World Refugee Day).

"I was hoping that there was going to be an enormous amount of solidarity, but I was not expecting this to be such a huge amount," Muratov said, according to the Associated Press.

The outcome of the three week-long auction was a surprise to many, as the high bid was just $550,000 as of early Monday.

Joshua Benesh, the chief strategy officer for Heritage Auctions, told the New York Timesthat the bidding had been increasing in increments of $100,000 and $200,000 when it suddenly shot up from $16.6 million to $103.5 million, thanks to an anonymous bidder on the phone.

Benesh later told the AP that he was awestruck, stunned and flabbergasted by what happened — and offered an explanation.

"We knew that there was a tremendous groundswell of interest in the last couple of days by people who were moved by Dimitry's story, by Dimitry's act of generosity, that the global audience was listening tonight," he said.

Prior to Monday night, the most ever paid for a Nobel Prize medal was $4.76 million, when James Watson — who won the prize in 1962 for co-discovering the structure of DNA — sold his in in 2014. (In 2013, the family of his co-recipient, Francis Crick, received $2.27 million at another Heritage auction).

The Norwegian Nobel Institute said it approved of the sale of Muratov's 23-karat gold medal, in what Heritage Auctions called a first-of-its kind endorsement.

"This generous act of humanitarianism is very much in the spirit of Alfred Nobel," said institute director Olav Njølstad. The intended sale is therefore subject to the wholehearted approval of the Norwegian Nobel Committee."

A woman holds Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov's 2021 Nobel Peace Prize medal at auction in New York on Sunday.
Kena Betancur / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
A woman holds Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov's 2021 Nobel Peace Prize medal at auction in New York on Sunday.

Heritage Auctions tweeted Monday night that the funds were already in UNICEF's possession. All proceeds will go towards its humanitarian response to the Ukrainian refugee crisis, it added.

Muratov and the auction house are encouraging people to continue raising awareness about the humanitarian crisis and donating to UNICEF, even without a prize on the line.

"We hope that this will serve as an example for other people like a flash mob, for other people to auction their valuable possessions, their heirlooms, to help refugees, Ukrainian refugees around the world," Muratov — who traveled from Russia to New York City for the event — said onstage before the bidding began, according to The Times.

Muratov was one of two winners of last year's Nobel Peace Prize, along with Philippine journalist Maria Ressa. He is the editor-in-chief of the Novaya Gazeta, an independent Russian newspaper known for its critical and investigative coverage of the country's politics and social affairs that was forced to suspend operations earlier this year after reporting on the war in Ukraine.

Muratov previously donated his Nobel Prize earnings to charity, too

Muratov announced his decision on the newspaper's website in mid-March.

"Novaya Gazeta and I have decided to donate the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize Medal to the Ukrainian Refugee Fund," he wrote, according to Google's English translation. "There are already over 10 million of refugees. I ask the auction houses to respond and put up for auction this world-famous award."

He also called on Russia to stop combat fire, exchange prisoners, provide humanitarian corridors and assistance, release the bodies of the dead and support refugees.

On the individual level, he said, people can "share with refugees, the wounded and children who need urgent treatment what is dear to you and has a value for others."

Muratov previously pledged that he would "not take or receive even one single cent" of the money that came with the peace prize, telling the United Nations that the newspaper held an editorial board meeting to determine how to distribute it.

They decided to donate it to several causes, including a health foundation that helps journalists, a foundation that supports children with serious rare diseases, a children's hospice in Moscow, a clinic that treats children with leukemia and the Anna Politkovskaya Prize Foundation — which was established in the memory of a Novaya Gazeta journalist who was murdered in 2006.

His newspaper was among the many independent outlets forced to close after Russia invaded Ukraine

Many independent news outlets in Russia have been forced to shutter since the invasion of Ukraine because of a new law that criminalizes war reporting that is at odds with the Kremlin's narrative.

Novaya Gazeta was one of the last holdouts, announcing only at the end of March — after receiving two warnings from the state censor for allegedly violating the country's foreign agent law — that it would cease operations until the end of the war in Ukraine.

It had previously said that it would remove content about the war in Ukraine from its website and social media channels (citing censorship and legal threats from the government) while continuing to report on the consequences Russia is facing as a result of its actions.

It said the move was taken to balance the interests of readers with the freedom of its staff.

"Military censorship in Russia has quickly moved into a new phase: from the threat of blocking and closing publications (almost fully implemented) it has moved to the threat of criminal prosecution of both journalists and citizens who spread information about military hostilities that is different from the press releases of the Ministry of Defense," the paper said in a message to readers, according to Reuters. "There is no doubt that this threat will be realised."

A version of this story originally appeared in the Morning Edition live blog.

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Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.