Editor’s note: With the arrival of the holidays, The Hot Bid shifts its focus to world auction records.
What you see: A 1936 Olympic gold medal, one of four earned by Jesse Owens during the Berlin games. SCP Auctions sold it in 2013 for $1.46 million, a world auction record for any piece of Olympic memorabilia.
Who was Jesse Owens? He was an African-American athlete who put the lie to Adolf Hitler’s racist Nazi policies when he won four gold medals at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin in track and field events: the 100 meters, the 200 meters, the long jump, and the 4 x 100 relay. Sadly, his glory was cut short by American sports officials, who took away his amateur status and killed his career after he accepted endorsement deals. He struggled thereafter, resorting more than once to running against racehorses (and beating them). He died of lung cancer in 1980 at the age of 66.
How did you come up with an estimate for Jesse Owens’s Olympic gold medal? “Estimates are always educated guesses,” says Dan Imler, vice president of SCP Auctions. “Nothing is directly comparable to Jesse Owens’s medal. We had the estimate at half a million and up, and we far exceeded our estimate.”
Do we know when Owens gave the medal to his friend, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson? “We can’t pinpoint the moment when Owens gave it to him, but their relationship is well-documented,” he says.
What was your role in the auction? “The bidding was all done online,” he says, noting that he dealt with prospective bidders and promoted the lot. “To be honest with you, when we’re in the final stage of bidding, most of our work is done. There’s a tremendous amount of research and marketing leading up to that point.”
When did the online bidding enter crunch time? “On the final day, at 5 pm PST, we went into extended bidding. The hours between 5 pm and 8 pm PST are when people make their moves and really competitive bidding, bidding wars, occur,” he says. “We entered extended bidding on the Owens medal at $447,000. It rose to $1.4 million over a period of three hours. I can’t say exactly how many people were bidding, for privacy reasons, but there were definitely more than two.”
When did you know you had a world auction record? “We weren’t really focused on setting a record,” he says. “We were more focused on getting a result that was worthy of the item. We were very pleased to see it pass the seven-figure mark, but we were not surprised.”
What do you remember most about that auction? “The exciting part for us was having the validation of people recognizing the historic significance and value of the item. It was nice to see it go for a figure commensurate with its importance,” he says. “We’ve sold items for more than this sold for, but I’m not sure we’ve sold anything more important from a cultural standpoint. It goes so far beyond the realm of sports memorabilia. Given what it represents, it’s very difficult to put a price on it. In my opinion, it’s worth more today than it was in 2013. If it sold again today, it would bring a higher price.”
Why do you think the Jesse Owens Olympic gold medal would sell for more than $1.4 million if it was consigned again today? “There are several factors,” he says. “The high-end collectible sports memorabilia market has advanced significantly in the last four years. Also, in that time, a major motion picture about Jesse Owens, Race, further raised his profile and raised awareness of what he accomplished. The National Museum of African American History and Culture at the Smithsonian recently opened an African-American sports exhibit. It wasn’t in place at the time the medal sold, but I can’t imagine a greater centerpiece for it. I think the medal’s magnitude has grown for all those reasons.”
Owens won three other gold medals at the 1936 Olympics, but they appear to be missing. If any of them turned up, along with ironclad documentation that proves they belonged to Owens, how might they do at auction? “If another two or three could be verified, none would be worth less than what we sold ours for, and they could sell for substantially more,” he says.
What was it like to hold Jesse Owens’s Olympic gold medal? “We’re in the business of handling historic artifacts on a daily basis. You can get numb to it. We really felt we were in a privileged position to be handling this,” Imler says. “After 20 years in the business, you don’t get goose bumps that often. This raises goose bumps. It’s very special.”
Why will the Jesse Owens Olympic gold medal stick in your memory? “It’s the ultimate symbol of triumph, and not just in the athletic realm,” he says. “It’s symbolic of civil rights, athletic greatness, courage, fortitude–it’s so far beyond sports, so far beyond anything we’ve handled in our company history. It will stand the test of time and provide inspiration for many generations to come.”
SCP Auctions will offer the Jesse Owens Estate Collection in its 2018 Spring Auction, which takes place between March 7 and March 24, 2018. Lots will include the Presidential Medal of Freedom given to Owens by President Gerald Ford in 1976 (estimated at $250,000-plus); the Congressional Gold Medal posthumously awarded to Owens by President George H.W. Bush in 1990 (estimated at $150,000-plus); and two of the four First Place Olympic Winner Diplomas he received for his performances in the Long Jump and the 200 Meter race at the 1936 Berlin games (estimate pending).
Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of SCP Auctions.