Stephen Hawking’s wheelchair is warping the price-value continuum

Stephen Hawking and bride Elaine Mason pose for pictures after their wedding in 1995.
Stephen Hawking and bride Elaine Mason pose for pictures after their wedding in 1995.
Image: Reuters/Russell Boyce
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In an age where you can buy a professional (or college) athlete’s game-worn socks, it’s not unreasonable to assume someone out there would pay good money for Stephen Hawking’s old wheelchair. And the expected price tag demonstrates the value we as a society place on celebrity mementos and artifacts, even those with relatively gloomy associations.

Christie’s London will be auctioning off 22 of Hawking’s possessions in an online sale that is scheduled to begin Oct. 31 and will also include manuscripts and letters from Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, and Albert Einstein. Hawking used the electric wheelchair, manufactured by BEC Mobility, between the late 1980s and mid-1990s. Estimates place the chair’s gavel price at between £10,000 and £15,000 ($12,600 and $18,900), which is $10,100 to $16,400 more than the price of a new one with comparable features.

The item, according to the auction catalog, measures approximately 127cm x 58cm x 72cm, and is “covered in red and maroon leather.” Penny & Giles Drives Technology made the chair’s motor. The winning bidder will also receive “one metal footrest and a leather-covered cushion support.”

The wheelchair Stephen Hawking used in the late 1980s
The wheelchair Stephen Hawking used from the late 1980s to the mid-1990s
Image: Christie's handout

Hawking’s wheelchair will be the final lot in the auction, following others that include his 117-page PhD thesis (estimate: £100,000 to £150,000), typed by Hawking’s first wife, Jane, in October 1965, and signed by Hawking along with the statement, “This dissertation is my original work. S.W. Hawking.”

A bomber jacket once owned by Hawking is a relative bargain, with an auction estimate of just £100 to £150. Hawking’s production script from a 2010 episode of The Simpsons in which he appeared (£2,000 to £3,000) features “adhesive label and yellow highlighter on page 22 marking Stephen Hawking’s lines.”

Stephen Hawking's production script from The Simpsons
Stephen Hawking’s production script from The Simpsons

In a statement, Hawking’s daughter, Lucy, said the proceeds from the sale of the wheelchair will be donated to the Motor Neurone Disease Association and the Stephen Hawking Foundation.

What the winning bidder does with the chair is, of course, up to them. However, as Christie’s makes abundantly clear (italics original), “This property is sold as a collector’s item and not as an item for medical use.”