August 15, 2004
They seem like anyone else. They’re bankers, printers, husbands, wives. But their obsession can strain marriages and ruin lives.
"These little pieces of metal have amazing powers over people," says veteran collector and dealer Jeff Fleming of Utah.
"Olympic pins are like dope or gambling."
The hobby seems innocent until you’re hooked. Dozens of Web sites are devoted to the hobby, and hordes of collectors around the world wait to swoop down upon new styles. They can be as simple as a flag with the famed rings logo or as ornate as a large, blooming golden flower containing small symbols.
Media outlets create their own, such as NBC’s video camera pin with a flashing red light. Sponsors such as Coca-Cola lure buyers with series pins that drive them to collect the whole set. Thousands of designs are fashioned for each Olympics, with sales at Sydney, Australia, reportedly reaching 65 million pins in 2000. Corporations spread the pandemic by setting up trading areas in cities hosting the Games, drawing mobs.
Suzanne Papazian, who has attended 11 Olympics in a row, tells of completing a set of pins while in Nagano, Japan, that formed the shape of a Coke bottle for about $100, then selling it right away to a desperate Japanese collector for $1,000. Of course, she had also assembled a set for herself. Fleming says, "It’s like a panic attack; it’s like buck fever, you find insanity among people during the Games. When people have to have something, they’ll pay anything for it. It takes over your common sense."
Fleming says he has witnessed ugly scenes over pins, like the former torch-bearer who resorted to shoplifting them from Fleming’s store and another obsessed client who spent himself into an inextricable hole for pins.
"He ended up in a hospital under a suicide watch, all because of pins," Fleming says.
Some will do just about anything for a pin. Ray Erwin of Los Angeles, who estimates his collection at 10,000 pieces, says that a woman in Barcelona, Spain, asked him for six pins in exchange for her company for the night. Not even six valuable items, he says, just ones with the words "Barcelona 1992" on them. (Erwin declined the offer.)
It starts out innocently: A free offer on a Coke can, a gift from a friend. But only the first one is free.
Pins can be gateway items, leading to harder stuff. Collectors might trade bunches of ordinary pins for a few rare ones, then parlay those into such prizes as torches or athletes’ participation medals. And then the big payoff can come: Bronze, silver and even gold medals.
"I have an Atlanta gold medal," says Scott Reed of Georgia. He obtained the item "from a fellow collector who got it from a female Russian cyclist. I don’t know why she gave it up, but there are medals available."
In non-Olympic years, pin traders can fall on hard times.
"Prices go up (around) the Games, then maybe 95 percent of collectors will say, ‘Enough is enough,’" Utah’s Fleming says. "They’ll frame them and forget about it until the next Olympics. Right now, the market is deader than a doornail. I’ve got pins on eBay that retail for $7 selling for $4.95. It’s flat; it’s unlike any other Olympics."
Fleming blames this lull before the upcoming Athens Games in part on what he calls the Greeks’ "negative spin on the pins that are produced in the U.S.A. The hype is that they’re not authentic, not licensed, which is not true. It may get ugly for those U.S. collectors who are going to travel to Greece in an effort to sell or trade pins."
The situation is similar to one that bedeviled collectors in 1992 in Barcelona. Strict enforcement of laws prohibiting selling by unlicensed vendors drove pinheads into dark alleys.
"You feel like a criminal. It was crazy," says Los Angeles collector Bob Bravender of the New York-based Olympin Club.
Atlanta’s Reed denies any acrimony toward the Greeks.
"My opinion is that Athens pins will be very sought after because a lot of people who normally go seem to be staying home, whether it’s because of terrorism or infrastructure."
No reliable price guides are available; the hobby is coldly ruled by supply and demand. It’s hard to guess what the hot buy will be.
"It’s like the stock market," Fleming says. "You have to be extremely lucky. If you’re in it for the money, forget about it."
A quick survey of trading and selling sites showed that the most common items were in the $5 to $10 range. Media pins tend to fetch the highest prices of those easily available online. For instance, the blandlooking Associated Press pins for Seoul 1988 sell on one popular site for top dollar ($35), whereas the charming tiger mascot/soccer event pin is only $6.99.
The real money is in the ultra-scarce "country" pins. These National Olympic Committee pins are worn by the athletes and are often released into the wild after being traded with other Olympians. For instance, pin maker Trofe’s 1988 Art Deco pins for the African nation of Gabon might command $300 to $400 -- if you could even find one for sale. Country pins such as Britain’s from the 1936 Berlin Games might run $1,000.
The most expensive items, however, tend to be participation badges, such as for the ones for the 1924 Winter Games, valued at about $15,000, and torches, among the rarest the 1960 Squaw Valley edition, one of which sold recently for $45,000.
Old-school pinheads scoff at the commerciality that has overwhelmed their hobby. Some complain that it has come to resemble baseball card dealing, with greed ruling the roost.
"True collectors would rather trade," Reed says.