The Paris Olympics are set to begin a year from now—most likely a fully restored Notre Dame—but you can grab a piece of Olympic history in a massive sale of medals and memorabilia taking place right now.
The sale at RR Auction (through July 20) includes roughly 400 artifacts spanning nearly every modern Olympiad, from the inaugural games in 1896 to the recent Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics. And, not just winning medals are on offer, but relay torches, tickets, autographs, and even a stadium seat signed by all the U.S. hockey team players who emerged victorious in the legendary “Miracle on Ice” game against the Soviet Union in 1980.
The earliest item in the collection is a bronze medal issued for the first modern Olympic Games in Athens in 1896—designed by Jules-Clément Chaplain, a sculptor and official medallist of the French government who helped found the Art Nouveau movement. The front depicts a relief portrait of Zeus holding Nike, the goddess of victory, in the palm of his hand, while the reverse shows a view of the Parthenon on the Acropolis. (At these inaugural modern games, first-place winners were awarded silver medals and second-place winners earned bronze medals.) Only 150 bronze medals were minted for the 1896 Olympics, making them exceedingly rare.
Between 1912 and 1948, the Olympic program included art competitions, as envisioned by Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the Olympic Movement. Medals were awarded in five categories—architecture, literature, music, painting, and sculpture—with the caveat that the works had to be related to sports. At the 1924 Winter Olympics in Chamonix (the first Winter Games), Raoul Bénard won in the sculpture category and saw his winning design—a victorious Olympic athlete holding ice skates and skis in the air with the Alps in the background—minted and presented to third-place champions.
Interestingly, art competitions were not entirely new to the Olympics, as there were contests for music, singing, and even heralding in the ancient games. Coubertin believed that combining the fine arts with the Olympics would recreate their former glory. Indeed, although only 35 artists are known to have submitted works that first year, the popularity of the art competitions soared by the time of the 1924 Paris Olympics and especially the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics.
The most highly valued object in the auction, estimated at $150,000, is a rare Grenoble 1968 Winter Olympics relay torch, one of only 33 that were made. In contrast, the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing used 1,200 torches. After the torch was lit in Olympia, Greece, and the 33 torches sent to Paris by plane, over 5,000 torchbearers carried them through the Alps to Grenoble. Crafted from a rose-gold bronze alloy, the torch is one of the rarest and most sought-after Olympic artifacts in existence.
Another top lot is a rare gold medal from the Lake Placid Winter Olympics in 1980, crafted in gilt silver by Tiffany & Co. It was awarded to pair skater Alexander Zaitsev, who represented the Soviet Union with his partner Irina Rodnina. Between 1973 and 1980, the acclaimed skaters won every event they entered and remain the world’s most decorated pair team. With its scarce mintage of only 73, this gold medal is estimated to fetch upwards of $75,000.
From the 1936 Berlin Summer Games, the auction includes an exceptionally rare Gold Chain of Office worn by members of the International Olympic Committee. Designed by Walter E. Lemcke and based on ancient Greek vases and coins, it features six medallions along the chain depicting various athletes—javelin thrower, torch runner, wrestlers—with a larger medallion with the head of Zeus.
Another standout from the 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics is item is a gold medal awarded to Peter Paul Fernandes. The Indian field hockey player earned the award—designed by the Italian painter and medal designer Giuseppe Cassioli—for the crucial role he played in the British Indian team’s victory. He contributed two goals in the team’s 9-0 win over undefeated Japan, challenging Hitler’s belief in Aryan supremacy during Germany’s hosting of the Olympics.
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