Olympic Collectors Fair Builds Toward Future, Says Host

(ATR) The president of the Olympin Collectors Club tells Around the Rings the 17th World Olympic Collectors Fair helped legitimize his hobby in the eyes of the IOC.

(ATR) Hundreds of collectors from 19 countries bought, sold, and traded Olympic memorabilia during a show that helped legitimize their hobby in the eyes of the IOC and gave the U.S. Olympic Committee ideas for London 2012 marketing.

The 17th World Olympic Collectors Fair, which ended Sunday in Rosemont, Ill., outside of Chicago, was the first show sanctioned by the IOC to be held in North America.

"I think it was very successful," Don Bigsby, president of the host Olympin Collectors Club, tellsAround the Rings. "I think we did a lot of building this time for the future.

"After all these decades, we've got friends at the IOC now that can help us and we hope we can help them."

Bigsby recalled a newspaper article during the 1992 Barcelona Olympics that accused pin traders of living in alleys and eating out of trash cans.

Collectors have worked hard to change that erroneous perception, emphasizing that they're not scavengers, they're preservationists.

Gerhard Heiberg, the IOC executive board member who chairs the commissions on marketing and collectors, attended the entire show and praised the "great atmosphere."

Admitting that collectors weren't always appreciated, he told banquet attendees, "You are really good ambassadors and represent the history of the Games."

Heiberg, the chief organizer of the Lillehammer Olympics, even added to his own collection. He bought a signed photo of 1994 downhill gold medalist Tommy Moe. "It gives me real pleasure," he said.

Peter Zeytoonjian, the USOC managing director of consumer products, came looking more for ideas than objects.

"I found the people very interesting and their passion for the Olympics Games very exciting," he told ATR. "I also found the amount of art and the different treatments of the art over the years fascinating to see."

Zeytoonjian said the color palettes will help the USOC design its upcoming pins, apparel and other fan gear for London.

"What you see here is everyone wants to be part of the Olympic Movement," he said. "Whatever country they're from, they want to support their team and being able to wear their products makes them even more engaged in being part of the team."

Lois Holloway, a collector from Oregon, showed Zeytoonjian past Team USA pins as well as more popular pins from other NOCs. "I was pretty blunt with him," she said.

When the USOC was rebranding, Zeytoonjian told collectors, "We did not speak to any of you and should have."

Trying to Grab New Collectors

Although the fair was held in conjunction with the National Sports Collectors Convention, most of the baseball, football and basketball collectors crowded the main floor instead of wandering over to the "Olympic Pavilion."

"I think we were hoping for more floor traffic," Bigsby said.

The dealers who displayed their wares on 105 tables mainly bought, sold and traded with each other.

One veteran collector said he didn't sell to anybody he didn't already know, most of whom belong to the 600-member Olympin club.

"I know a lot of side deals went on," Bigsby said, "I'm sure a lot of money transferred hands within this room."

The show did attract one very enthusiastic convert. Clyde R. Allen of Wisconsin, accompanied by his son Ray, left with eight participation medals.

"We walked in this room and got turned on to a whole new world," Allen said. "It's just the idea that they were given to the athletes."

He started with participation medals that told a story, such as the 1980 Moscow medal. One of his relatives was a contender for those Games in weightlifting. The Beijing medal was appealing because Ray's girlfriend is Chinese.

"I got a flying start," Allen said.

Michael Bowlby, a Virginia collector, was also thrilledwith the fair. He said he "made more money than any other show. "

Bowlby said he is the only American who deals in rare Olympic signatures and had several advanced collectors from Europe make the trip just to purchase items from him.

He even showed Dick Fosbury, the 1968 Olympic high jump gold medalist, something he'd never seen before: photos of him competing. Bowlby acquired them from someone in Mexico and promised to send copies to Fosbury.

Olympians on Board

Fosbury, president of the World Olympians Association, the official alumni group, attended the entire show. He signed autographs and showed off his gold medal, which is actually shinier than it was in 1968. "I've invested in upkeep and maintenance," Fosbury said. "It was starting to look like a silver medal."

He said he is looking for opportunities for Olympians -- both within and outside his organization -- to do fundraising.

"Of course, Olympians have a great story," Fosbury said. "Some of them also have great collectibles. So for families or individuals, this ought to be a very good opportunity."

His 1968 teammate, Bob Beamon, also had a table to display "Art of the Olympians."

"Miracle on Ice" Still Hot

Five tickets from the 1980 "Miracle on Ice" hockey game in which the U.S. upset the USSR had the most appeal for non-Olympic collectors, selling for almost $500 apiece depending on condition.

"It's iconic and it's not just an Olympcic event," said Jonathan Becker, who sold the tickets on behalf of the Lake Placid Winter Olympic Museum. "It's an American event. It was such a surprise at a time when the country was so low. The event is a tangible remembrance for a lot of people, and that's why a lot of baseball or hockey collectors, when they see Miracle on Ice, they want a piece of it."

Next Year's Shows

The 18th World Olympic Collectors Fair will be held in Athens, Greece next May, either before or after the handover ceremony of the Olympic flame to London 2012.

The Olympin show will take place in Atlanta in September.

Bigsby hopes the USOC will have a presence at future shows. "They would have sold a lot of material to people here," he said, "and they also would have been able to sign up a lot of donors to the Olympic Movement. Now that they've been here, maybe they will think that's something they should do."

2,012 2012 Pins

Honav, the exclusive pin licensee for London 2012, explained to collectors its ambitious project to produce exactly 2,012 pins for retail sale. Up to 500 complete sets are available for about 12,000 British pounds (approximately $19,500) and come in a special case.

"People are thinking about London and have a lot of questions," said Roger Yin of Honav. "We are showing about half of what will be the entire collection."

He said having a precise number of pins is unprecedented. About 70 percent will be limited editions of 2,012 pins.

Most will sell for 6 pounds (about $10), while some are in premium sets at up to 100 pounds ($162).

"We're trying to bring the message of London pins to the U.S. market," Yin said. "We see momentum here at the fair, so we're very glad."

Big Sales in Auction

The most expensive item sold by Ingrid O'Neil in her 62-lot auction held during the show was a never-before-seen 1932 Lake Placid participation medal in gold-plated silver. It sold for $20,000, plus a $3,000 buyer's fee. The ceramic bowl used in the lighting ceremony at Olympia, Greece, prior to the 2000 Sydney Games, plus the dress and sandals worn by the high priestess, fetched $17,600. A 1988 Seoul gold medal for women's fencing in the original box went for $16,500, the highest price for a winner's medal in the auction.

Written and reported in Rosemont by Karen Rosen.