Dan Imler, vice president of SCP Auctions, holds up an Olympic gold medal from 1936 in Berlin won by runner Jesse Owens, which is set to be auctioned off by SCP Auctions in Laguna Niguel.
SCP Auctions has sold a 1920 Babe Ruth jersey for a record $4.4 million, dealt a Mickey Mantle rookie card and peddled LeBron James’ size 16 shoes.
But Vice President Dan Imler says one item from the company’s upcoming auction stands out from anything he’s sold, as much for its political history as its sporting significance.
Other big-ticket items
- Two Jackie Robinson game-used bats.
- Jerry Lucas’ 1960 USA basketball Olympic gold medal. On a team that included Oscar Robinson and Jerry West, Lucas helped lead the team in scoring, and led it in rebounding. They won by an average of 40 points. The medal could bring more than $200,000.
- Boston Red Sox outfielder Shane Victorino’s grand slam home run ball. Victorino’s home run in this year’s American League Championship Series Game 6 propelled Boston to a 5-2 win over the Detroit Tigers, sending them to the World Series. It could sell for more than $50,000.
One of athlete Jesse Owens’ gold medals from the 1936 Berlin Olympics goes up for auction starting Wednesday on SCP’s website.
“This is one of those once-in-a-lifetime-type pieces,” Imler said. By LUKE RAMSETH
The medal’s decadeslong journey from Berlin to Laguna Niguel tells a story of the African American struggle.
This auction itself represents an era that gave birth to civil rights in the United States. Memorabilia includes two bats Jackie Robinson swung in games (one from the 1955 World Series) and a 1927 jersey Willie Foster wore in the Negro Leagues. There are robes and gloves Muhammad Ali used in a 1976 bout vs. Jimmy Young.
Yet it’s the Owens medal that could fetch a record price for Olympic memorabilia at $1 million.
It’s not solid gold: The last time Olympic medals were pure gold was 1912. But Imler gently handled the piece engraved with “XI Olympiade Berlin 1936” with felt last week at SCP’s offices off Golden Lantern.
“It’s the kind of the thing that belongs in a Smithsonian Institution or a museum of that caliber,” he said.
At the 1936 Games, Owens won the 100-meter dash, the 200-meter dash and the long jump, and was a member of the winning 400-meter relay.
The 23-year-old African American’s dominance would be represented as a slap to the face of Adolf Hitler and his hopes that the Games would showcase Nazi strength. The son of an Alabama sharecropper and the grandson of slaves had beaten Hitler’s “superior” Aryan race.
But Owens returned to a segregated United States, and his amateur athletic standing was stripped when he skipped a post-Olympics European competition tour.
A man who set a long jump record that would stand for 25 years couldn’t ride at the front of the bus, and he couldn’t live where he wanted. He struggled with money.
“I wasn’t invited to shake hands with Hitler, but I wasn’t invited to the White House to shake hands with the president, either,” Owens later said.
Owens’ return from Berlin is where the journey of his Olympic medal began. It’s the only documented original left of his medals, Imler said, though it can’t be tied to a specific event.
A duplicate set later issued to Owens is on display at Ohio State University, where he won eight NCAA championships.
In the late 1930s, Owens hit it off with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. The African American tap dancer and movie star captivated both black and white crowds, just as Owens had. He danced with Shirley Temple and starred in the musical “Stormy Weather.” Duke Ellington composed a tribute to him.
Robinson helped Owens out with his money problems, finding him work in the entertainment industry. He and his manager even helped Owens start a band that toured the country.
Here was Bojangles, who had dealt with the same racism and had also tasted success and wealth, helping a friend get back on his feet.
Owens gave Robinson the medal as a gift.
Until a few months ago, most people didn’t know a Jesse Owens medal still existed.
It had resurfaced in the late 1970s, when biographer N.R. Mitgang interviewed Robinson’s widow, Elaine Plaines-Robinson, for his book, “Mr. Bojangles.” She apparently brought the Owens medal out to show him, says Imler.
“He told me he was just blown away by it,” said Imler, who gathered a statement from Mitgang as part of the medal’s authentication process. “Their relationship was documented, but the fact he gave him that medal really surprised him.”
The medal disappeared from the public eye for several more decades, tucked away somewhere in the Robinson estate.
About eight months ago, SCP Auctions got an email from the daughter of Plaines-Robinson. The family wanted to sell.
“We were very, very excited,” Imler said, though they were also cautious. There are plenty of fakes in the sports memorabilia world.
They tracked down an Olympic medal expert and had in-person meetings with the family. The size, weight and manufacturer’s marking on the side all checked out. Neither Mitgang nor the Robinson family could be reached for comment.
Imler said he didn’t fully comprehend the medal’s significance until SCP showed it off in August at the National Sports Collectors Convention in Chicago.
“The reaction we got was overwhelming,” he said. “People were just astonished to see it.”
It’ll go to the highest bidder on Dec. 7.