Collectibles and Corona

(ATR) The abbreviated torch relay in Greece in March makes a used Tokyo Olympic torch a coveted item.

(ATR) Collectors still clamor for Tokyo 2020 Olympic memorabilia despite the one-year postponement of the Games.

Everything from kimonos to drums to lacquer boxes and kitchen knives bear the Tokyo 2020 logo and are available on eBay and other forums. Buyers, sellers and traders who invested in thousands of Tokyo pins were relieved that organizers decided to keep the 2020 branding instead of changing to 2021. Plush mascots of every shape and size are also popular as many people collect both Miraitowa, the Olympic figure, and Someity, representing the Paralympics.

In Japan, the Olympic stores have been closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, but are expected to re-open soon.

For collectors, the most coveted item is a used Tokyo Olympic torch. The lucky people who acquired them during the abbreviated Greek torch relay in March could cash in if the journey of the Olympic flame does not resume in Japan next year. About 10,000 torches were produced.

"There is a very small market that has already begun," Stathis Douramakos, an Olympic auctioneer and dealer in Greece, tells Around the Rings. "It is an expensive market. Anyone who has a Tokyo torch in their hands, they know how few there are so they keep the prices very high."

Douramakos said a couple of torch bearers in Greece sold their torches for several thousand dollars apiece, but the frenzy will die down if the relay continues as planned next year. Then he estimates price will drop to $1,500 or $2,000.

Douramakos said the torches that were supposed to be used during the rest of the route from Olympia to Athens are in storage in Greece. He said unofficial discussions have been held about giving them to the torchbearers who lost their opportunity to run when the relay was shut down.

After the Games, winners’ medals and participation medals are usually sought after by collectors. If the Games are not held, will the winners’ medals, which have been made from old cell phone parts, see the light of day or go back into the scrap heap?

No Big Shows in 2020

The wave of cancellations that brought the sports world to a halt has also washed away the two major shows scheduled for this year. The 26th World Olympic Collectors Fair in Artena, Italy, slated for Sept. 4-6, and the Olympin Collectors Club show in Atlanta in late October have been postponed. Because the 2021 world’s fair is already scheduled for Paris, the Artena show will be moved to a new date in 2022 that has not yet been determined. The U.S. show will still be in Atlanta in the fall of 2021.

One of the longest-running gatherings in the hobby, the monthly shows in Atlanta at The Varsity restaurant, have also been suspended until it is safe for people to congregate. The Varsity has been a hangout for collectors since before the Atlanta Games.

Too Many Pins

Shlomi Tsafrir, a collector living in Nagano, does not expect the same pin collecting mania that swept through Japan in 1998 during and after the Nagano Olympics. For those Games, the organizing committee made most pins in limited editions of only 1,000 -- creating demand and high prices. After the Games, the same designs were reissued in larger amounts, dragging down the prices.

There is already no shortage of Tokyo pins. However, Tsafrir tells ATR that he is worried about what will happen to the market if the public health crisis continues and the Games are not held.

"You need the Games to create the buzz for collectors," Tsafrir said.

He’s also worried about the "huge amount" of fake pins on eBay.

Most of these are fantasy pins, meaning they are not knockoffs of official pins, but completely different designs. Some are high-quality sponsor pins from well-known companies like Toyota and Omega.

There are even Tokyo 2020 pins for McDonald’s, which is no longer an Olympic sponsor. While that should be a dead giveaway, Tsafrir said, "Most of the people who buy them don’t know they are buying fake pins. It’s sad that eBay doesn’t do anything about it."

He said this will hurt the hobby in the long term "when people who are newcomers realize they were deceived. I know quite a few people here in Japan that bought them on eBay and didn’t know. They are mad and at our meetings here in Nagano they are trying to dump them to each other."

The most expensive Tokyo pin on eBay is a 20-gram, 24 karat gold koban pin for $5,201.40, while the costliest 2020 item is a limited edition Omega Speedmaster watch for $8,999. A Taiko Ishikawa Drum is $1,954.20. A life-sized Miraitowa is on sale for just under $900.

Tsafrir said that starting in March, Japan Post stopped shipping to most countries. He said he has had to ask his eBay customers to be patient.

"I cannot state this situation on my listings," he said. "Any time you write on the listing corona or Covid-19, eBay doesn’t let you list it."

However, eBay has not shut down a seller in South Carolina who has been hawking Tokyo 2020-21 pins that illegally use the Olympic rings decorated with the green Covid-19 pattern and red slashes. The price is $15.

Pins aren’t the only items that a dubious origin. Tsafrir said several people have been arrested in Japan for selling fake Olympic goods, including replicas of Olympic winners’ medals. One famous Nagano dealer, he said, spent five weeks in custody and paid a fine for selling fake pins.

High-End Market Still Strong

Olympic items from 1896 to the 2020's still show up with regularity in general and specialized auctions.

"Collectibles are still hot right now," said Bobby Eaton of RR Auction, "and it could be due to people are home and they’re not distracted with other things. We’ve had four auctions since the pandemic happened (including space and aviation and fine autographs and artifacts) and we’ve seen a 30 percent increase in purchasing. We also have more registered bidders than we’ve seen in prior months. Maybe in the current world people are trying to get back to what they love."

The next RR Auction dedicated to Olympic memorabilia runs online from July 17-23 and includes an example of the Mexico City 1968 torch that was only used in Spain after another type of torch exploded, a Moscow 1980 prototype torch, a Tokyo 1964 gold medal and an IOC Patek Philippe watch.

While rare items are still doing well, the same can’t be said for the more common ones.

"I’ve seen a complete collapse in participation medals," Eaton said, "but overall, I think the collecting community that was buying before is still buying."

Jonathan Becker, a long-time collector, said he believes there is "some pent-up demand, only because people have been isolating themselves and maybe out of boredom."

While he said prices have been depressed, "They were depressed before the pandemic. Has it made it worse? I don’t know. Things are still moving. If it’s stuff that people still need, there’s still a market."

Douramakos said he likely will hold his next auction in 2022, hopefully after Tokyo 2020 and Beijing 2022 "when people will still have the Olympic fever."

While he allowed that "the circle of Olympic collectibles is not at the highest point, from what I see, the circle will come back. It might be good advice for someone to invest right now in torches and medals, the true collectibles.

"Every market is the same -- you take your chances. If you want big returns on investment, you have to fight the fear."

Of course, the collectibles market will be jolted if the Olympic Games are not held in Tokyo next year.

"If the world relapses again with Covid-19," Douramakos said, "we’ll have bigger issues to worry about."

Written by Karen Rosen

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