This month, Nobel Prize–winning economist Friedrich August von Hayek’s seminal book The Road to Serfdom turns 75. To mark the occasion, Sotheby’s, one of the largest art brokers in the world, is offering Hayek’s Nobel Prize and a collection of his belongings — including his typewriter from the 1930s, his annotated copy of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, and his Presidential Medal of Freedom, awarded by former President George H. W. Bush in 1991 — at auction.
The online sale began on March 8th and ends on March 19th, and the sale items will be on display in London from March 15th to the 18th. I visited Sotheby’s in New York City last Friday, while a sample of the belongings for sale was being exhibited, and met with Gabriel Heaton, a books and manuscripts specialist at the auction house.
Hayek was one of the greatest intellectual figures of the 20th century, a champion of freedom and economic liberalism whose free-market ideas influenced policymakers from President Ronald Reagan to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. After World War I, he witnessed his native Vienna collapse as a great European capital and suffer from hyperinflation. This experience and Ludwig von Mises’s private seminars at the University of Vienna prompted Hayek’s perspective to shift, and soon his ideas would sweep, although in a clandestine way, across the Communist bloc in Europe. Milton Friedman said in 1999 that Hayek’s “books were translated and published by the underground and black-market editions, read widely, and undoubtedly influenced the climate of opinion that ultimately brought about the collapse of the Soviet Union.”
Hayek’s Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences, kept in a display case separated from the other items at the exhibition in New York, was awarded to him in 1974, and is one of the most symbolic items up for auction, representing his wide-reaching and enduring influence. Hayek founded the Mont Pelerin Society, which assembled like-minded thinkers such as Friedman and Karl Popper to discuss classical liberalism. One of the items for sale is a gold ingot given to Hayek on the 25th anniversary of the society’s founding. “The Mont Pelerin Society isn’t all that well known, but is actually incredibly influential,” Heaton tells me. “Hayek understood that in order to change the political agenda, the way to do that was by winning the arguments, and you do that by gathering together like-minded people to share their thinking and develop their arguments that way.”
Hayek’s set of presidential cufflinks, given to him by Reagan, and a photograph of the two men signed by the president are also for sale. “Reagan was a great admirer of Hayek,” Heaton says. “Reagan’s own copies of Hayek’s books were all heavily underlined.” Hayek’s Presidential Medal of Freedom and a signed speech on his work delivered by Margaret Thatcher in 2003 are also especially notable items up for bidding.
Twenty-seven years after his death, the items entrusted to Sotheby’s remain an enduring symbol of Hayek’s pioneering work.