We return to Olympic collecting expert Jim Greensfelder’s story diving into Olympic medal collecting and the ways they change athletes lives
We’re all deeply immersed in Olympic fever as I write this article. The 2016 Rio Summer Games are currently taking center stage in many of our lives. The stories of the athletes and what they’ve done to prepare can be as touching and emotionally rewarding as the final competitions to decide each winner. Together, as a nation, we root for our favorite athletes as they take gold, silver and bronze each night on our television screens, tablets and computers.
What happens to those wonderful medals after the games come to a close? Here, we offer you a glimpse, from a collectible standpoint, into the world of Olympic medal collecting as presented by one of the foremost authorities on the topic. It’s a quest for collectible grails like you’ve never seen before. That said, this isn’t just the story of the medals. Rather, it’s a look at how the value of these medals can impact lives far beyond a simple act of collecting them.
Recently, we shared the story of one utterly incredible Olympic pin trading collection. That was only the first part of Jim Greensfelder’s very interesting Olympic history, which we continue here. Having discussed both the origin of his passion for the Olympics and his first major run at Olympic collecting, I feel it’s time to turn to what Jim himself describes as “the subject for which I am most known throughout the world”. This would be his collection of Olympic medals and, more specifically his passion and expertise in regard to the participation medals, which will cover in more detail in a subsequent article tomorrow. In the space that follows, we’re focusing on the gold, silver and bronze medals!
Please know in advance that Jim doesn’t keep any of the medals we’re about to discuss in his home, but he has a couple hundred in storage at this time. That may sound like a lot, but this isn’t even close to the height of his collection and what happened to that collection is a story all its own. Let’s tell the tale of these treasures and the man who went after them all.
We pick up the story just as Jim has became disillusioned with Olympic pin trading and finds himself wanting to collect something that was actually used in the execution of the games. He wanted to go after something provided by the organizing committee for which there are a finite amount. The answer couldn’t have been clearer when you stop and consider the games. It had to be the Olympic medals themselves. Here, Jim started out as I would think most of us would; focusing on winner’s medals. In his own way, he was going for the gold, silver and bronze but the way in which he did it kept the athlete’s center to his story.
As he began collecting medals, what he found didn’t honestly surprise him. At first glance people don’t generally like the idea of someone collecting medals that were awarded to athletes for their performance. Not daunted, Jim typically explains (as he did with me) the reality of the situation. It’s an understandable fact that there are a lot of athletes out there who one day decides that they want to sell their medals because they need the money. It’s a simple truth of life that plays out over and over again through the years. Those individuals could go to somewhere like a pawnshop and get a small percentage of the actual worth or they could consult with a collector who deals in and is respected by the broader market and get a fair price.
Jim told me a story that illustrated this point well. Through an interpreter, a man who had participated in the Moscow Olympics as an athlete in 1980 contacted him. He was a swimmer and he had become a coach for the Ukrainian team since that time. He was going to the World University Games in Buffalo and had contacted Jim regarding selling his medals. Interested, Jim traveled to the games and they talked, working toward what they both felt was a fair price for a gold, a silver and a bronze medal from the 1980 games (which of course the US didn’t participate in). Having the money with him, they sat on the lawn and talked through an interpreter discussing the value until they both arrived at a final deal.
Next, Jim took out the cash and started counting it out and the man began crying. Here sat this big guy just openly weeping. Beginning to feel bad regarding the situation, Jim asked the interpreter to let the man know that he didn’t have to do the transaction if he was going to feel regret over it. Jim sincerely didn’t want the man to be unhappy selling his medals. The interpreter conveyed the message and then returned to Jim explaining that he was completely misreading what he is seeing. The tears were not of sorrow for selling these medals because they were just lying in a drawer collecting dust. The tears were pure joy because it hit the man that he would now be able to purchase an automobile, which he could never have afforded otherwise in the Ukraine on a coach’s salary. He was happy because this transaction, for him, would change his entire life as a vehicle would open doors to better wages and a better future. Here, the medals and the transaction were doing good and this is part of the focus of Jim’s collecting through the years.
So, what are the basics of collecting Olympic medals? What knowledge do you need to get started should you decide to go for your own gold (or silver or bronze)? Just thinking about the concept was a bit daunting to me as every collection you purse tends to have its grail items (those unbelievably hard to find items) but here, it felt as if every medal was a grail unto itself. Where do you begin? How big is the market? What impacting is each medal when it changes hands? Read on.
Let’s start with the basic idea of tying a medal to an athlete. Back in the early years of the Olympics, up until 1968, there was really no way to tell which sport a medal was awarded in or whom it was awarded to. Now, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) defines how each medal has to be styled and notes which sport it’s awarded in on the individual medals. If you know the medal was from a specific sport where there was only one gold or one bronze, you know who won it. But let’s say a volleyball team wins a medal. Here you know what sport it’s from but there is no way of knowing which athlete each medal is awarded to.
The fact that in those early years there was nothing that designated a sport or who won it proved key to Jim’s early trades in the hobby. As he began to get a reputation as a reputable and well versed medal collector (eventually writing a books on the topic) he would sometimes be called to help older athletes who won medals. They would come to him for help locating a specific medal. Say a 1948 London gold medal or bronze or whatever was needed. The athlete would explain how he or she won one medal but have two kids. They were often interested in finding a copy of the medal they had in consideration of passing it down to the next generation. The idea here was to not favor one child over another. Once Jim secured a second medal, the athlete could take both and mix the two so no child would ever know which one was the real medal presented to the athlete. This request came his way more than a dozen times over the years and he ended up doing this kind of medal hunting a lot. It paved paths into the community and grew his knowledge.
Along the way, he began building his own collection and doing appraisals. Through his early research he quickly became a bit of an expert on authentication and often did appraisals for athletes. Sadly, it became clear to him that just because an athlete won a medal or even several gold medals, it didn’t necessarily guarantee that they are going to do well in their life. Sometimes they needed to sell their medals so they could keep a home or even simply borrow money against it. Though he’s known for this kind of work, he made a point of sharing that anything he does for athletes, he doesn’t charge for his services. To me, this said a lot about the man I was talking to and made me very proud to be doing this interview.
For Jim, it came down to the fact that he was doing something that helped the athlete and gave a bit back to the Olympics he loved. Over the years he’s fully recognized that the athlete has a possession that is worth something and they need to do things to take advantage of that fact from time to time. Appraisals come due to bankruptcy or the athlete may be actually using the information to keep possession of the medal for work purposes. Many athletes use the medals as a basis for income by way of giving speeches on being an Olympic winner. If you don’t have a medal, it is not as easy to secure these kinds of engagements. Jim did tease that some of the athletes he’s worked with in terms of bankruptcy were pretty famous but no names were asked or given during our chat.
At this point, I became a bit curious about the actual market for Olympic medals. Did most medals in Jim’s collection come from athletes who wanted to part with them or is there a healthy secondary market? Jim explained it was really a bit of both.
That said, the value of the medals really fluctuates depending on which Olympics it is from and if it is gold, silver or bronze. It all comes down to how many there are out there and like any collectible it’s about rarity. Asking what makes one Olympics more valuable than another, Jim began to really break down the market for me.
The winter medals are worth more than the summer ones because there are fewer of them. The collectors themselves come in different varieties and you have to take that into account. There are collectors who hunt a specific Olympics and there are some who collect toward a specific sport. If you take a sport like basketball where the gold medal was won in Barcelona by the “dream team”, that is worth a lot more one for say field hockey.
The older Olympics can also get very rare but honestly some of them just don’t. The organizing committee decides how many medals they are going to strike. They have to strike more than they need creating duplicates that are never awarded except in cases of ties. Those extra medals are all stored in Switzerland and when the Games are over, they are all supposed to all go back to the Olympic committee. That said, sometimes they don’t. In these cases they are exactly the same medal, but they were never awarded. They were never handed out. That said, they are still worth a lot of money.
As the conversation of valuation got more specific, Jim shared a few stories. He explained that the least expensive winner’s medal you could buy would be one from Moscow. This is primarily because they are mostly Eastern European countries that participated and they need the money. A lot of those have been sold off. Compare that to the LA Games, where it was mostly Western countries that participated which are wealthier, and you see medals that are more rare to find. A Moscow bronze could probably be obtained on the market right now for $1,000 to $2,000.
On the other end of the spectrum, this market of unique (or somewhat unique) collectibles is not with its absolute true, Holy Grail collectibles. Jim shared that if he could find a gold medal from the 1904 St Louis Games, he could make two phone calls right now to two different people and they would both say they would take the medal without even asking the price. If you are looking for the ultimate in Olympic medal collections, it is a 1904 gold medal from St Louis. Jim knows of one in a private collection and that is it, quite possibly in the entire world. Just one. The IOC Museum in Lausanne doesn’t even have one. In truth they didn’t even have a silver one in their collection until they bought it from Jim two years ago. Asking why this Olympics is so rare, Jim explained that the medal is one of only three Olympic games where the medal was made from solid gold. Add to that that thirty to forty years ago, no one was collecting these things yet everyone needed gold and you know what happens next. They were melted down and they are almost completely gone from history.
Jim explained, “If I could find one of those, I know a person who it would, quite simply, make their life. He has more money than God and it would make his life to get that medal because he would have something no one else in the world has.”
Now, as interesting as all this is, we’re not even to the best part of Jim’s Olympic medal story. Jim goes on to become world renowned for his knowledge in this field and puts together a medal collection that would be unequaled. How did it happen? What happened to his collection? What stories does this all entail? Check back tomorrow, right here at CompleteSet Stories for the next installment as we celebrate the Olympics, collectible-style!