Olympic Gold For Collectors

When the Centennial Olympic Games commence in Atlanta on July 19 with the ceremonial lighting of the Olympic flame, more than the usual track and field, swimming, and basketball contests will heat up. Gatherers of Olympic memorabilia will be competing for pins, posters, programs, tickets, medals, and even the torches used to carry the flame.

Collectors have plenty of new merchandise to sift through. Dozens of licensees are peddling items branded with the Olympic rings and the Atlanta1996 logo, from Coach leather to U.S. coins.

But as with most collectibles created to exploit a big-deal event, items produced for the Atlanta games are not likely to appreciate much over time. "If you buy things from Atlanta, you'd have to hold on for 100 years," says Bob Cohn, an avid Olympics memorabilia collector who is chairman of Cohn & Wolfe, a public relations firm in Atlanta.

FOREIGN TRADE. Consider lapel pins, the most ubiquitous items swapped at the Olympics. "There is no secondary market in pins," says Bill Nelson, a dealer who sells thousands of $5 to $7 Olympic pins by mail (800 368-8434). Commemorative pins have been authorized by the Olympic Organizing Committee and are in plentiful supply. They're sold in stores and depict official logos and mascots. Sponsor pins used to promote corporate names and products may be harder to find. They're given to company bigwigs, clients, employees, and sometimes consumers who request them. The most coveted pins are generally those brought by the athletes from each nation, and, depending on the size of the country and its team, they're the scarcest. "Can you possibly get a pin from the Gambian team?" asks Don Bigsby, president of the Olympin Collector's Club in Schenectady, N.Y. ($10 a year, 518 355-6493). Visitors who run into athletes may find one willing to trade a country pin for an American piece.

The most sought-after items were produced between the first modern Olympics, held in Athens in 1896, and the 1936 games in Berlin. Some collectors also seek stuff made for games that were canceled (Berlin, 1916, Helsinki, 1940). A century ago, badges with ornate pins and ribbons were issued to athletes and other dignitaries. Today, they're worth as much as $2,000, according to Malloy's Sports Collectibles Value Guide ($17.95, Wallace-Homestead Book Co.).

In general, items from more popular sports (track and field, boxing, gymnastics) are more valuable than others (fencing, field hockey). A program or ticket tied to a notable event, such as the 1980 Lake Placid "Miracle on Ice" hockey match, or an item tagged to a celebrity (Jim Thorpe, Jesse Owens, Cassius Clay) may be worth a lot. The 1981 film Chariots of Fire added mystique to the 1924 games in Paris, says Harvey Abrams, a dealer in State College, Pa., who specializes in Olympic books (814 237-8331). Posters from those Paris games can run as high as $6,000 to $7,000, he says. Also highly collectible: official reports prepared by the host organizing committee detailing how the games were planned and administered.

For most collectors, the real prizes are the winners' medals. Ingrid O'Neil, a prominent Olympics dealer (404 812-0106), expects a first-place silver medal from the 1896 Athens games--gold medals, actually gold-plated, came later--to command $8,000 to $10,000 at an auction she'll run during the Atlanta games. Depending on condition and year, most gold medals bring $3,000 to $8,000; silver and bronze medals, $2,000 to $6,000 and $1,000 to $3,000, respectively. But participation medals given to every Olympic athlete just for taking part are also collectible. They can cost $200 for one from a recent event to around $8,000 for the extremely scarce medals issued to athletes at the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis, held in conjunction with the World's Fair.

Many Olympic torches are also rare and desirable. High on California collector John Torney's wish list is a torch from the 1960 Winter Games in Squaw Valley. Fewer than 20 were produced--compared with thousands for Atlanta--and a few burned up along the way. Torney reckons one might bring more than $25,000. When such highly coveted mementos turn up, Olympic collectors can set world records in the race to snatch them up.

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