The Prize Medals awarded at the 2012 London Olympic Games feature Nike, the Greek goddess of victory, on one side and British artist David Watkins' interpretation of the River Thames on the reverse. If you plan on collecting a medal from these Olympic games, it is going to cost you a pretty penny.
Much fuss is rightly made over the extraordinary accomplishments of Olympic athletes. The long, sometimes monotonous years of daily training—usually away from family and friends and even for important events—they have to put in is impressive. They exhibit so much drive, so much dedication with a goal of performing a feat of genuine skill that very few can ever attain. And, hopefully, be awarded for it with a show of appreciation from millions around the world, all encompassed by the public awarding of a fanciful disk of metal and ribbon.
An Olympic Prize Medal! It has enormous sentimental and personal value to be sure, but let’s begin with its more intrinsic value and ask, what is an Olympic medal made of?
First, we need to be quite clear here. There are two different categories of Olympic medals for collectors: the Prize Medal and the Participant Medal. The Prize Medal is awarded only to the deserving athletes who finished in the top three in their events. These medals are cast in bronze, silver and gold, are held up by ribbons and are rather large and heavy.
The Participant Medal is a smaller, commemorative die-cast piece, mostly of bronze, given to all who participated in the Games, either as an athlete, judge or staff. These Olympic medals are available in higher quantities and are quite collectible in their own right. It is the Prize Medal that we’ll concentrate on here for value and collectability.
To begin with, the 2012 bronze medal of the London Summer Olympic Games, according to news reports and the International Olympics Committee, is mostly copper, with 2.5 percent zinc and 0.5 percent tin. At just a little under a pound, the value of the metal in the medal at current market rates is about $5.
These are the Prize Medals awarded during the 1996 Olympics, held in Atlanta.
The silver medal is mostly made of copper and must include no less than 550 grams of silver—or about 1 percent—gilded over nearly one pound of underlying copper. At current silver prices, the total value of the Olympics silver medal is about $500.
Curiously, the gold medal is actually vermeil or gold gilded over silver. It contains 550 grams of silver over a copper base, but covered or “gilded” with six grams of 24k gold. The market value of the gold and silver is about $800.
All of the medal contents and sizes are strictly regulated by the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Even the actual designs must be approved by the IOC. What hasn’t been commonly known is that the three-tier medal prizes of bronze, silver and gold were first awarded in the 1904 St. Louis Games, according to the Wikipedia entry on the subject. The games of 1896 awarded the winners of events a silver medal and an olive wreath, while the runner-up received a bronze medal and a laurel wreath. In 1900 the winners received cups or trophies.
Altogether, according to Statistics Brain, there have been a total of 14,902 total Prize Medals awarded since 1904, including both Summer and Winter Games (5,008 gold, 4,862 silver, 5,032 bronze). This tally does not including the 2012 Summer Games, which will award approximately 4,500 medals, bringing the total to about 19,402 medals overall. These are important numbers to collectors, as it shows the rarity of the total Prize Medal pool.
Not as many as you would think.
A recently discovered Participation Medal from the 1904 St. Louis Olympic Games—what is believed to be the finest example of this medal known—is currently up for auction at Heritage Auctions in Dallas.
Because only 12 countries and 651 athletes attended the St, Louis Games, this is the rarest of all Olympic Participation Medals. The current bid for this medal is $9,000 (as of 3 p.m., July 31, 2012).
So, with a pool of only about 20,000 total Prize Medals since 1896—not including the trophies in 1900—what are the odds of owning any of the Olympic medals? What are their auction values? To find out, I checked WorthPoint’s Worthopedia to get an idea.
First medal I found was a 1984 Sarajevo Winter Games silver medal awarded for ice hockey to a member of the team from the Soviet Union. Combined with the participation medal (remember, a commemorative given to all participants, judges and staff at every Olympics and worth about $30-$50), they sold for $10,755.
Another medal I found was a gold medal awarded to hockey player Mark Wells, a member of the U.S. team that won an improbable victory against the highly favored Soviet team in the semifinals the 1980 Winter Olympics at Lake Placid, N.Y. Known as the “Miracle on Ice,” the victory led to a great outpouring of national pride. It still warms most of our cockles (at least those of us for remember it). Wells’ gold medal sold at auction in 2010 for $310,700.
A silver medal from 1984 Sarajevo Winter Games awarded to a player from the Soviet Union ice hockey team.
The gold medal awarded to hockey player Mark Wells, a member of the 1980 U.S. “Miracle on Ice” team.
And these were the only examples of Olympic Prize Medals listed in the massive WorthPoint auction records. As you can see, the difference between the intrinsic value of the Prize Medal and its historic value is rather significant, as it should be.
Even if the Prize Medals are a bit out of reach for the casual collector, the Participant Medals are just as highly coveted as their numbers were rather limited and controlled by the IOC. Their values are less than a few hundred dollars for the early ones to less than $100 for the more current Games. A very affordable alternative to the Prize Medals for sure.
During these 2012 Summer Games, we naturally love to see the skill being demonstrated by highly talented athletes. As collectors, we should also be looking at the collectability of all Olympic memorabilia. After all, their “thrill of victory” is also a big part of our own personal and national history, too.
Tom Carrier is a general Worthologist, with an expertise in a wide variety of subjects, including vexillology, or the study of flags.
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