In theory, at least, Olympic mementos seem like a good investment. After all, there will be only one 2012 London Olympics, and the special souvenirs created for the occasion will never be made again. But how much of this Olympic swag is truly limited edition, and more importantly, how much of it will actually increase in value over the years?
Not much, says Ingrid O'Neil, a California-based sports memorabilia dealer who specializes in Olympic collectibles. "If you are at the games, you want to get souvenirs," she says. "But because so many are made, they're not a good investment."
An Olympic Markup
One of the biggest culprits is Olympic pins. The colorful enamel pendants may seem like an inexpensive investment, but O'Neil warns that a full set of pins can cost upwards of $20,000. Worse, their values drop sharply after the games end. For example, the official Olympic Shop for Team USA is charging between $7 and $12 for London Olympics pins. By comparison, the same site is selling pins for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics for as little as 79 cents -- 90% off their pre-Olympics price.
As an added problem, there's the fact that Olympic souvenirs don't hold their value, at least not initially. "The prices on Olympic memorabilia are highest during the games, but go down soon afterward," O'Neil explains. "If you're looking for an investment, don't buy now -- prices will hit bottom six to 12 months after the games."
The Best Things to Buy
Assuming you can curb your Olympic fever until 2013, O'Neil cautions that the best investments are not mass-marketed items like pins and stuffed mascot toys, but rather things that aren't sold in stores, like Olympic torches and winners' medals. These items, while rare, are not impossible to find, and are likely to rise quickly in value.
Then again, as with anything else from the games, the price of torches is sure to come down, at least in the short term. Still, they with prices starting at $1,099 for a torch from the Vancouver Games or $4,000 for a 2008 Beijing Games torch, it looks like Olympic torches are likely to be worthwhile investments in the long term.
Of course, the ultimate prize for any collector -- or competitor, for that matter -- is Olympic gold. But, in terms of their base value, Olympic medals aren't worth all that much: the "gold" medal is mostly silver, with about six grams of gold plating added on. All told, the top prize has a paper value of $494. The silver medal's composition is almost exactly the same as the gold, minus the plating, and is worth $260. A bronze medal, melted down, is only worth about $3.
Those are the basic scrap metal prices. But new medals are designed for each game, which makes them limited edition artworks. And after they're awarded, their prices begin to vary wildly. To begin with, gold medal winners are generally loath to sell their hard-won awards -- in fact, according to one expert, there are only about 20 Olympic gold medals on the open market. So, not surprisingly, when they go up for sale, the price is high. For example, in 2004, Polish swimmer Otylia Jedrzejczak decided to sell her gold medal to help a charity that worked with children who have leukemia. The sale netted over $82,000.
Sale prices go even higher when the medal has a story. For example, when Mark Wells, a member of the 1980 U.S. hockey "Miracle on Ice" team, sold his gold medal, it fetched over $310,000. Then again, the story doesn't always sell: When Tommie Smith -- the 1968 Olympian who got in trouble for flashing the "black power" salute on the awards dais -- tried to auction his medal in 2010, he set the minimum bid at $250,000. He didn't have any takers.
Ultimately, O'Neil says, the key to investing in Olympic memorabilia lies in figuring out a specific area that you love and learning as much as you can about it. Twenty years ago, she notes, Olympic collectors often didn't distinguish between common items and those with real value. Today, however, collectors have become more educated. On the down side, this means that the chances happening upon a lucky find are infinitesimal. On the bright side, it means that items of real value are likely to maintain their value for the long haul. And, who knows -- with a little bit of luck, you might be able to chance upon an under-priced torch or rare medal.
Bruce Watson is a senior features writer for DailyFinance. You can reach him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter at@bruce1971.