Olympic gold and silver medals represent the pinnacle of athletic achievement, respected around the globe for their symbolism. But when the medals are occasionally placed on the auction block by athletes who want to raise funds for charity—or those facing financial hardship—they usually do not reach the value of truly rare gold and silver coins which are among the most sought-after collectibles.
Consider, earlier this year an investor paid a record price of $18.9 million paid for a 1933 Double Eagle gold coin, the only legal coin of its type in the world.
By comparison, one of the four gold medals Jesse Owens won at the 1936 summer Olympics sold at auction for nearly $1.5 million in 2019. More typical is a gold medal from the 1984 U.S. basketball “Dream Team” that recently sold for $83,188.
Of course, it’s not the gold value of the medals that attracts investors. Olympic gold medals, after all, are virtually all silver, and only plated with gold. Rather, it’s the rarity and association with athletic glory that gives these medals their value, even if their prices don’t come close to the rarest of gold and silver coins.
This helps explain why a silver medal from the 1900 shooting competition recently sold for just $1,283. But a winner’s medal from the first modern Olympics in Athens in 1896—one that is silver because there were no gold medals then—recently sold for six figures, $180,111
The next test of the Olympic gold medal market will come this fall when Boston Celtics basketball legend Bill Russell plans to put his 1956 Olympic gold medal on the auction block, along with some of his N.B.A. championship rings and other memorabilia. Russell, who was captain of that winning Olympic team, intends to donate some of the proceeds to the charitable organization he founded, MENTOR: The National Mentoring Partnership.