Take Home the Gold: How to Invest in Olympic Collectibles

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Olympic MoneyThe Olympics are a magical time, when people from around the world gather to celebrate togetherness, fellowship and competition. And, amid the tidal wave of nationalism and internationalism, striving and admiring, Olympic watchers around the world will also join in another biennial ritual: the purchase of hundreds of millions of dollars worth of limited-edition, Olympic-branded pins, stuffed animals, T-shirts, medallions, and Wheaties boxes. Yes, that's right: Olympics souvenir season is upon us.

In theory, at least, Olympic mementos seem like a good investment. After all, there will be only one 2012 London Olympics, and the special souvenirs created for the occasion will never be made again. But how much of this Olympic swag is truly limited edition, and more importantly, how much of it will actually increase in value over the years?

Not much, says Ingrid O'Neil, a California-based sports memorabilia dealer who specializes in Olympic collectibles. "If you are at the games, you want to get souvenirs," she says. "But because so many are made, they're not a good investment."

An Olympic Markup

One of the biggest culprits is Olympic pins. The colorful enamel pendants may seem like an inexpensive investment, but O'Neil warns that a full set of pins can cost upwards of $20,000. Worse, their values drop sharply after the games end. For example, the official Olympic Shop for Team USA is charging between $7 and $12 for London Olympics pins. By comparison, the same site is selling pins for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics for as little as 79 cents -- 90% off their pre-Olympics price.

As an added problem, there's the fact that Olympic souvenirs don't hold their value, at least not initially. "The prices on Olympic memorabilia are highest during the games, but go down soon afterward," O'Neil explains. "If you're looking for an investment, don't buy now -- prices will hit bottom six to 12 months after the games."

The Best Things to Buy

Assuming you can curb your Olympic fever until 2013, O'Neil cautions that the best investments are not mass-marketed items like pins and stuffed mascot toys, but rather things that aren't sold in stores, like Olympic torches and winners' medals. These items, while rare, are not impossible to find, and are likely to rise quickly in value.

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Olympic torches, for example, seem particularly valued -- and there isn't just one torch for each Olympic games: There are thousands. This year, people who are participating in the torch relay before the games have been given the opportunity to buy their torches for $340, less than half the price that it cost to manufacture them. Many have already turned around and put them up for sale. For a brief period, bids on torches topped $170,000, but they have recently come down to earth -- as of this writing, eBay's top price for a London torch is $19,448.75.

Then again, as with anything else from the games, the price of torches is sure to come down, at least in the short term. Still, they with prices starting at $1,099 for a torch from the Vancouver Games or $4,000 for a 2008 Beijing Games torch, it looks like Olympic torches are likely to be worthwhile investments in the long term.

Olympic Gold

Of course, the ultimate prize for any collector -- or competitor, for that matter -- is Olympic gold. But, in terms of their base value, Olympic medals aren't worth all that much: the "gold" medal is mostly silver, with about six grams of gold plating added on. All told, the top prize has a paper value of $494. The silver medal's composition is almost exactly the same as the gold, minus the plating, and is worth $260. A bronze medal, melted down, is only worth about $3.

Gold Medals

Those are the basic scrap metal prices. But new medals are designed for each game, which makes them limited edition artworks. And after they're awarded, their prices begin to vary wildly. To begin with, gold medal winners are generally loath to sell their hard-won awards -- in fact, according to one expert, there are only about 20 Olympic gold medals on the open market. So, not surprisingly, when they go up for sale, the price is high. For example, in 2004, Polish swimmer Otylia Jedrzejczak decided to sell her gold medal to help a charity that worked with children who have leukemia. The sale netted over $82,000.

Sale prices go even higher when the medal has a story. For example, when Mark Wells, a member of the 1980 U.S. hockey "Miracle on Ice" team, sold his gold medal, it fetched over $310,000. Then again, the story doesn't always sell: When Tommie Smith -- the 1968 Olympian who got in trouble for flashing the "black power" salute on the awards dais -- tried to auction his medal in 2010, he set the minimum bid at $250,000. He didn't have any takers.

Ultimately, O'Neil says, the key to investing in Olympic memorabilia lies in figuring out a specific area that you love and learning as much as you can about it. Twenty years ago, she notes, Olympic collectors often didn't distinguish between common items and those with real value. Today, however, collectors have become more educated. On the down side, this means that the chances happening upon a lucky find are infinitesimal. On the bright side, it means that items of real value are likely to maintain their value for the long haul. And, who knows -- with a little bit of luck, you might be able to chance upon an under-priced torch or rare medal.

Take Home the Gold: How to Invest in Olympic Collectibles

Plush mascots are among the cutest Olympic souvenirs, but they don't hold their value. Mass produced in the hundreds of thousands, they are likely to go down in price as soon as the games are over.

Olympic pins are among the classic souvenirs of the games. Unfortunately, though, they are produced in huge quantities and enormous variety, which means that if you're a collector, getting a full set of pins can run you thousands of dollars. To make things worse, they lose up to 90% of their value within a few months of the games.

Did you know that you can buy an Olympic torch? Sold by both the torch run participants and the Olympic committee, the torches tend to lose value immediately after the games, but can be a good long-term investment if you can wait to buy when prices are low.

Olympic winners' medals rarely go on the auction block, which helps keep prices high. When Tommie Smith tried to sell the gold medal he won at the 1968 Olympics, his asking price was $250,000.

A lesser-known Olympic collectible, "badges" were metal identification tags that were produced up until 1976. Rare and hard-to-find, their prices can be extremely high, and they hold their value. This badge was worn by Doris Storey from the Berlin Olympics in 1936.

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Bruce Watson is a senior features writer for DailyFinance. You can reach him by e-mail at bruce.watson@teamaol.com, or follow him on Twitter at@bruce1971.
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