Billionaire’s bid in the auction that closed Sunday is highest price ever paid for Olympic artifact.
After a frenzy of last-minute bidding, a Laguna Niguel auction house announced that it sold a gold medal awarded to Jesse Owens at the 1936 Berlin Olympics for a record $1.466 million early Sunday.
The price beats the previous Olympic memorabilia record of $865,000, paid last year for a silver cup won in the 1896 Olympic marathon. It also smashes the previous highest price paid for an Olympic medal: Mark Wells’ gold from the 1980 ice hockey team sold for $310,700 in 2010.
“It was pretty crazy. Yesterday, it just moved up a lot,” said SCP Auctions President David Kohler. Bidding for the online auction, which included more than 1,000 other sports memorabilia items, didn’t wrap up until 2:30 a.m.
Billionaire investor Ron Burkle had the winning bid, one of 30 since the auction began Nov. 20. Kohler said Burkle plans to take the medal and other historical items on an educational tour around the country. The co-owner of the Pittsburgh Penguins also has William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize for Literature.
“It’s everything you could ask for,” Kohler said Sunday. Burkle’s “going to do more than just put it in his collection, and that’s what the Owens family was really hoping for.”
The medal was consigned to SCP Auctions by the estate of Elaine Plaines-Robinson, wife of tap dancer and movie star Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, who died in 1949.
In 1936, Owens won the 100-meter dash, the 200-meter dash and the long jump, and was a member of the winning 400-meter relay team. The 23-year-old’s dominance was a slap in the face to Adolf Hitler, who had hoped the Games would showcase Nazi Germany’s strength.
Owens returned to a segregated United States, however, and eventually befriended Robinson, who had dealt with racism – but also enjoyed success – in his own line of work. When Owens began to struggle with money, Robinson helped him find work in the entertainment industry. Owens later gave his friend the gold medal as a gift.
The medal sold Sunday is the only known original, though it’s unclear for which event it was awarded. A duplicate set later issued to Owens is on display at Ohio State University, where he won eight NCAA championships.
“It’s just really neat how much worldwide interest there was in this medal,” Kohler said.
In the last 10 days, stories on it were published everywhere from Germany to Singapore, on BBC Radio and CNN, he said.
As recently as Thursday, however, it wasn’t clear the bidding would hit $1 million, which is what SCP Auctions and other experts estimated it would sell for. It stood at about $300,000.
But by Saturday evening it had easily cleared $1 million – and continued upward. Included in the final price for the medal is a 20 percent “buyer’s premium,” which goes to SCP Auctions for its services.
Other top items sold in SCP’s fall auction included a bat Jackie Robinson used in his 1949 National League MVP season, which sold for $183,500, and one he used in the 1955 World Series, for $128,617. A 1960s Wilt Chamberlain Los Angeles Lakers road jersey went for $60,667. The auction, one of three the company does per year, brought in nearly $4.5 million.
“We work really hard to build these sales,” Kohler said. “It’s like we build a house, and now it’s sold. And that’s great, but tomorrow we’ve got to build another house.”