Posted on Fri, Aug. 13, 2004

Antiques | The race for Olympic souvenirs

For The Inquirer

Judging from the subject matter on Greek vases, ancient life resembled our own in many ways. The scenes involve romance, religion, and running around in athletic contests.

The runners circling an Attic black-figure vase, circa 550 B.C., in the collection of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology inspired this year's Olympic stamp, as the Games return to their roots in Greece. This vase and other artifacts related to sport and the Olympics are on view through September in the museum's Ancient Greek World gallery.

"The Real Story of the Ancient Olympic Games" can also be found online at The Web page author, David Gilman Romano, has just finished excavating in Arcadia and plans to update the Web history as his family enjoys the Games in Athens.

"My goals for the Web site are to write observations about the Athens Olympic Games and make comparisons between the modern and the ancient Olympic festivals," Romano wrote in an e-mail. "This will include... competitors, events, politics, nationalism, security, dress, and souvenirs."

Among the ancient souvenirs are the Greek vases and sculpture depicting hard-fought races, wrestling matches, or boxing contests that now can be seen in museums. Back then, winners and hometown fans were just as enthusiastic about the Games as they are today.

Which is one reason private collectors search out material from the modern Olympics, back to their start with the Athens Games of 1896. Posters, programs, tickets, torches, winner's medals, and enameled pins are among the memorabilia available at antiques shows and auctions.

Graphic-design specialists are particularly fond of the large advertising posters and souvenir-program covers from the first half of the 20th century. Just in time for this year's events, Swann Galleries in New York sold a copy of the dramatic poster from the 1936 Summer Olympic Games in Berlin, when athletic competition mirrored political conflicts in a divided world.

The poster, showing a laurel-crowned athlete looming above the Brandenburg Gate, sold at auction Aug. 4 for $2,990.

Nicholas Lowry, Swann's poster expert, said, "Among the hardest to find is the poster for the Amsterdam Olympics of 1928... . Very popular in America is anything from the Los Angeles Olympics of 1932. It's a great poster but it's also American, so that's a double whammy.

"The Helsinki games scheduled for 1940 were canceled because of World War II, but they had printed the posters," Lowry said. "When they finally held the games in Finland in 1952, the later posters were the same as those from 1940 - they show a man running over the globe - but the map has changed because of the war."

As a rule, the earlier the poster, the rarer it is because fewer were printed. In recent years, hundreds of thousands of posters have been printed in each Olympic year, which makes them less valuable.

Posters and program covers with dates, illustrations and prices are among the items you can find in The Unauthorized Guide to Olympic Pins and Memorabilia by Jonathan Becker and Gregory J. Gallacher (Schiffer, $29.95).

"I collect tickets, winners' medals, participation medals, and torches, while Jonathan [Becker] collects paper items - diplomas and posters," Gallacher said. Winners' medals are difficult to locate, particularly for the Winter Games with its fewer sports, while participation medals are easier to find at sports auctions and Internet sites.

Winners' medals and the diplomas winners received can easily bring $5,000 to $10,000 for the games of the first half of the 20th century. A 1928 Amsterdam Summer Games gold medal might bring $4,500, while a rare first-place medal from the 1936 Winter Games at Garmisch-Partenkirchen might be worth more than $15,000.

On souvenirs available to the public, Gallacher said, "The first Olympics to really have a lot of items made especially for the event were the 1936 games in Germany." Those games also inaugurated the torch relay that begins each Olympic year.

Torches are a Gallacher specialty. "Some are very valuable, very rare, but not necessarily because of how old they are," he said. "The first torch from 1936 in Berlin is relatively easy to find, whereas the one from the 1992 Albertville Winter Games is difficult." Prices, which can soar into the five-figure range, depend on how many were produced for each relay.

Pin collecting, a favorite with many children, has gotten out of hand in recent years, with enormous numbers distributed by sponsors such as Coca-Cola.

"It's almost impossible to collect all the pins made for the Olympic Games these days," Gallacher said. "They have flooded the market, and the value is no longer there, although it's still a fun thing for kids. Some National Olympic Committee pins and some media pins still retain value."

Also collectible are the charming enameled team pins from the pre-1980 games. The French 1956 team pin for the Melbourne games features a colorful rooster (value: $150-$175); the 1948 Austria team pin from St. Moritz shows a view of the mountains (value: $200-$250).

At these prices, this is definitely pin-collecting for adults.

Read Karla Klein Albertson's recent work at

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