Decades-Old Mold Sold for 'Bargain' Price of $15K

Fungus said to come from pioneer Alexander Fleming's original penicillin culture
By Linda Hervieux,  Newser Staff
Posted Mar 2, 2017 2:33 AM CST
Someone Paid $15K for Some Decades-Old Mold
On the auction block: a penicillin mold and the signature of its maker, Alexander Fleming, the father of penicillin.   (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)

How much would you pay for a piece of mold? If your answer is "nothing," it may surprise you to know that someone else's answer was $14,617. A patch of green bacteria encased in a round glass dish sold for that sum to an unnamed buyer at a London auction on Wednesday, the AP reports. The furry sample's case is signed on the back by Alexander Fleming, the scientist who sourced the world's first life-saving antibiotic from Penicillium chrysogenum in 1928. His inscription describes this sample as "the mould that first made penicillin"—which may not quite be so, the AP notes, since the Scottish-born doctor produced many such medallions. The payday for Fleming's niece, who sold the sample, was substantially higher than the predicted sale price of $5,000.

But it may have been a relative bargain for the buyer. Pfizer paid many times that—$51,000 in today's dollars—in 1996 for a similar blob, Quartz reports. Once thought to be rare, it turns out many samples exist, made by Fleming and gifted to notables such as Winston Churchill, Pope Pius XII, and Marlene Dietrich "almost as a kind of holy relic," a rep for Bonham's auction house tells the AP. Not everyone was happy to receive one. Queen Elizabeth's husband reportedly griped about getting "another one of these bloody things," notes Quartz. More bits of trivia: Smithsonian reports Fleming made "microbial art paintings," and the AP reports that after Oxford scientists refined Fleming's discovery, penicillin production was put into high gear in preparation for D-Day in 1944. (NASA has lost its fight over this mistakenly auctioned space treasure.)

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