A silver medal in shooting from the 1900 Olympics in Paris recently sold for a mere $1,283.
Then there was a bronze medal from the 1956 Winter Games in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy, that fetched $3,750.
But it was a first-place silver medal from the first modern Olympics in Athens in 1896 — there were no gold medals then — that commanded six figures on the eve of this year’s Tokyo Games. It sold for $180,111, according to RR Auction, a Boston-based auction house that handled all three sales.
Even though their sentimental value may be priceless to the athletes who wear them around their necks, Olympic medals are finding their way to pawnshops and auction blocks from the podium, where collectors are scooping them up like rare coins, comic books and other sports artifacts such as baseball cards.
“It’s a niche collectible,” Bobby Livingston, an executive vice president of RR Auction, which brokered the sale of the three medals and 18 others on July 22, said Sunday. “The ones that have come to market in recent years, there isn’t a glut of them.”
One doesn’t have to be Caeleb Dressel, an American swimmer who won five gold medals in Tokyo, to collect medals.
Dozens of former Olympians have resorted to selling their medals over the years. Some have cited financial hardships, while others have said they were motivated by raising money for charity.
Boston Celtics legend Bill Russell will put his gold medal from the 1956 Olympics, when he served as captain of the U.S. basketball team, on the auction block this fall.
“I’ve decided to sell most of my collection,” Russell said in a video on the website of Hunt Auctions, the Exton, Pennsylvania, auction house that will handle the sale of his medal, some of his NBA championship rings, a warmup jacket and other memorabilia.
Russell says some of the proceeds will go to MENTOR, a charity he co-founded that promotes youth mentorship opportunities. A donation will also be made to a social justice initiative created by the Celtics.
Although the names of Olympians are not engraved on medals, names matter, as do the circumstances associated with athletic feats, auction experts said.
A gold medal won by an unidentified member of the 1984 U.S. basketball team, a roster that included Patrick Ewing and Chris Mullin, sold for $83,188 on July 22, RR Auction said.
It was a handsome sum, but it is a mere fraction of the nearly $1.5 million that a collector paid in 2019 for one of the four gold medals won by Jesse Owens at the 1936 Summer Games in Berlin. The sale price set a record for a piece of Olympic memorabilia, according to SCP Auctions, the Laguna Niguel, California, auction house that handled the sale.
Owens, a Black American track and field athlete, delivered a dominant performance at those games as Adolf Hitler watched.
In addition to the origin and ownership history of collectibles such as medals, known as provenance, their condition plays an important role in their price, auction experts said. Do they have their original ribbon? Did they come with a case?
Not all Olympic medals are engraved with the name of the sport for which they were awarded, which auctioneers say can reduce their value if it is unclear.
In Tokyo, the gold medals won by the athletes overwhelmingly contain more silver than actual gold, which makes up about 6 grams of the total weight of 556 grams, according to the International Olympic Committee.
That works out to be about $800 in gold and silver in those medals, Philip Newman, a founding partner and managing director of Metals Focus, a London-based research firm, said Sunday.
“If you’re winning, I think the value is probably irrelevant,” Newman said. “I’d be surprised if anyone thought they were pure gold.”
The silver medals awarded at the Tokyo Games are made from pure silver and weigh 550 grams, which works out to about $450, according to Newman, who said bronze medals would be worth significantly less. They contain red brass, which is 95% copper and 5% zinc.
Each medal comes with a wood case and features the five Olympic rings, the official name of the Games and Nike, the Greek goddess of victory, on them, a requirement of the IOC.
Some collectors will gladly settle for bronze, Livingston said.
“They’re still Olympic medals,” he said. “Third place is still pretty darned good. As a collector, you can start with bronze if you don’t have a lot of money.”
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