Jim Greensfelder’s story as a world renowned Olympic collecting expert begins with a small bag of 30 pins that grew to reach 15,000
There are times in life when you feel you are in a moment that is going to really mean something to you over time. For me, it often comes in the form of a conversation and I’ve done a lot of interviews in my day. That said, my recent conversation with Jim Greensfelder really stands out both in terms of the scope of discussion on a topic I love, the Olympic Games, and the number of cold chills I felt as history came alive during our casual, two hour chat.
Jim has been a member of the IOC Collectors Commission, he’s served as a Director of new computer and telecommunications technology at Procter & Gamble, he’s cofounded a software company and he’s also authored seven books on Olympic medals. If that wasn’t enough, he has a collectible history that is really unequaled in his arena of expertise. Jim is world renowned for his knowledge when it comes to Olympic medals, especially participation medals. People come to him because he is one of the few authorities in the world that can authenticate Olympic medals. In fact, he is one of, quite possibly, only two individuals who can tell you if a medal is real and accurately access its value.
Before we begin, I want to stress a couple things that I quickly learned while talking to Jim. First and foremost, none of his collection resides in his home. He and his wife decided long ago that storage or banks were the safest way to pursue this hobby but he was kind enough to get these pieces of history out for me to see while we spoke.
That said, even more than the collectibles, it was the man sitting across that desk talking with me that impressed me. He’s a gentleman who very much loves the Olympics. Despite times of disillusionment in terms of the International Olympic Commission and witnessing a flooding of the pin market for the sake of profit, he’s maintained a deep devotion to the spirit of these games and the people who are a part of them. That really comes through in a conversation. You can see as he settles into storytelling that his love for the Olympics is very real and his motives are driven more by respect for history, supporting the athletes and celebrating the spirit of the Olympics than anything profit focused. Here, I was really pleased to learn that his passion was about collecting, documenting and helping others over the ultimate profitability of a collection. That was really refreshing to witness.
This conversation and the topics covered was so massive, I decided to split it over a series of articles here at CompleteSet. Jim’s collecting focus has really divided into three arenas over the years (with a few honorable mentions too a few other areas at the end). Those focal points for him have been Olympics pins, Olympic medals (with a focus on participation medals) and Olympic torches. For this article we focus on his pin collection and the start of his passion for the Games that unite the world every four years.
We begin with a simple question. I asked Jim, “What got you excited about the Olympics? What was the kernel that kicked this off? What, if you forgive the pun, lit that fire for you?”
For him it was the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. He attended that Olympics as a guest of Xerox and quickly fell in love with the event and everything going on there. Little did he know that a simple pack of pins, provided by Xerox, would have such a profound impact on his life? I don’t know about Jim, but for me I’ve learned that I rarely see those moments when they are happening but looking back can pick them out again and again. Here, Xerox provided him with a little bag containing about 20 Olympic pins. At the end of the Los Angeles games, he returned home with about 30 pins having bought some new ones to foster his unexpected collection. Among some of the pins he purchased were a few put out by Proctor & Gamble. As he worked for the company, he found it fun to snatch them up at the Games.
Once back, he learned that there were a few thousand P&G pins sitting in a warehouse and decided to buy them at cost from the company. Those pins became the basis for his collection as he used them to start trading with other people improving his own collection.
Having just done a deeper article on “Everything You Need To Know About Disney Pin Trading“, our discussion turned in that direction for a time, as there are clear similarities between Disney pins and Olympic pins. Jim, in fact, had even collected all the Disney Olympic pins at one time. When it comes to the Olympics though, the pins were originally exchanged as tokens of goodwill between athletes; Olympic pins grew over the years to be traded by spectators where Disney brought them on as a marketing program. Pins are produced by all participating nations as well as many sponsors of the Games and really came into their own formally at the 1988 Calgary Games where official pin trading stations were established. It would be 11 years later in 1999 at EPCOT when similar trading stations would appear at the Disney parks.
Getting back to Jim’s story, he returned to Los Angeles on business a year after the Xerox trip in 1985. There he found himself really settling into collecting spending a lot of his free time going around to pin stores and trading. He explained, as a man who never misses a meal, this was the one time in his life that he did just that. During the trip, he found himself racing from point A to point B to make a deal for a pin anytime his work schedule would allow. Yes, this involved missing a meal or two.
That said, the Calgary Olympics in 1988, which I mentioned above, marked the height of Jim’s time in the world of pin trading. He really went after the pins of this Olympics and in time his collection would grow to 15,000 pins. His home became a testament to this hobby. His office had a significant amount of wall space and over time all of those walls (and even the ceiling) were covered with framed pins from his collection. You could walk in and look anywhere (even up) and you would find a tapestry of color and countries from the Games.
Of course, there had to be a moment where this all changed and his collection took a new turn. That day came when he was sitting at his desk looking at all his Calgary pins. The run of pins was special as it was probably one of the most complete collections he ever had. He knew he had paid upwards of $100 for some of those pins. That said, as he looked at them, he realized that he could no longer remember which one he had paid that price to obtain.
With this line of discussion, Jim was leading us toward the topic of valuation. You see, Olympic pin values deteriorate after the games are over. Except for a specific type of pin, most pins move to the $5 value mark even though you can buy and sell them in the moment for as much as $25 each. The only pins that are going to be worth anything over time are those brought by the countries represented at the games and some of the media ones.
To explain, every country makes their own pins and brings them with them so that their athletes have pins that they can trade with other athletes. Jim became an expert on these pins. As there are only a limited number made and they are hard to get, collectors often try to get those for a specific Games or try to get one from each of the countries that participated. So, if some small island country only brought 50 pins, that number available to collectors is very small. These are the pins that really retain their value. More importantly, the collectors know that they are not being reproduced and these pins are not just rolling them out there for the sake of making money.
In terms of initial price of these pins (rather than long term value), you can typically ask more for pins that represent multiple things at once. Jim gave the example of pins that celebrated, let’s say, Disney, beer and Boy Scouts. You could ask more for that kind of complex pin as they become very desirable to attendees.
Jim put this knowledge to good use during the Salt Lake City Olympics in 2002. There, he found himself serving as the Olympic Attaché for the Cameroon delegation. An African country that has never seen snow, they found themselves at the Winter Olympics thanks to an athlete from Minnesota who took up cross-country skiing.
Isaac Menyoli got his country to agree to let him compete in the Olympics and Jim was the one who was there to help him finance it all. Jim made the uniforms and the pins and learned a lot about how you design a pin that people want to spend money on. This pin was a bit oversized and had a lot of different things going on it. Those pins sold for $25 each at the Salt Lake City Games. In the end, Jim was able to fund Isaac and the entire delegation that come from Cameroon. You can spot the pin Jim made in the graphic containing all the pins above. Just look for the butterfly, bottom-right!
As exciting as Calgary was for this story, the organizing committees began to realize that they could sell these pins for real money after that year and started producing more and more pins. This trend really culminated at the 1996 Atlanta Games. For Jim, this was really the worst when it came to pin collecting. Instead of the usual one pin licensee, Atlanta had three. After the games were over, one of these companies went bankrupt and they sold their leftover pins out of the back of a warehouse where there were palettes full. The pins sold by the pound and you could get them for rough 10 cents apiece destroying any chance of there being value for them long term.
You could see that this was a moment in collecting that changed things for Jim as he talked for a bit about the Rio games, taking place at this time, and how he knew that the pin people he’d dealt with over the years were down there trading away. He’d already seen pictures from guys he’d know for years having fun. It felt like, in a way, he missed that fun yet at the same time seemed was happy to be concerned with other things.
Jim’s real disenchantment with collecting pins came when crooks entered the market. If a pin were selling for $50 to $100, these individuals would simply go out and make more of the pin, faking and duplicating them. Now, if you know what you are doing you can go to an expert to authenticate (as Jim does for medals) but that’s a lot to do for this kind of collecting.
Here his Olympic collecting began to change. He moved into Olympic medals because he wanted to collect something that was actually used by the organizing committee. These medals were used in the actual execution of the games so there is only a finite quantity and that made it, in a way, more worthwhile to pursue. Jim would go on to become the world’s largest collector of these, but that is a story for next time.
By the time the Nagano Games arrived in 1998, Jim was moving away from pin collecting and didn’t hunt any pins during those games. From there on, he just collected pins or traded for the fun of it. In 2000’s Sydney Games, they had the opening ceremony on his birthday so he went out and collected every opening ceremony pin that had his birthday on it. In 2002’s Salt Lake City Games, they made a lot of pins for the fire department and police. As his dad was a fireman, he collected all the fire department pins just to have fun but that’s been the extent of things since the height of his collection.
Jim explained that a lot of people were in it for the money and they didn’t really care about the collectors or the community. This eventually caused him to walk away. This leaves one burning question. In the end what happened to the pin collection? Jim donated the entire collection and you can go see it at the Olympic Museum in Lake Placid New York. All 15,000 pins from his primary collection are there.