Atlanta Olympic memorabilia live on, but not making many people rich

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Three hundred million yellow stamps. Sixteen varieties of federal commemorative coins. Some 100 million enamel pins. And that’s not counting the sea of beach towels, toothpick holders and dinnerware paying homage to Izzy, the alternately mocked and beloved electric blue mascot of the 1996 Games.

Whatwazit all for, exactly?

Much of it is still out there somewhere, and not all of it is stashed inside long-forgotten boxes at the back of closets. But for Atlantans hoping their 1996 memorabilia might be worth gold, and not just warm and fuzzy feelings, most are likely to be disappointed.

Unless it’s a rare item or directly connected to a beloved athlete, it’s unlikely to rake in big money now and maybe never, auctioneers and other sports memorabilia experts say.

“There were so many items made in such numbers that most will never appreciate much in value,” said Ingrid O’Neil, a longtime Olympic memorabilia dealer. “You can still find them easily.”

Caption

Collections of enamel pins from the 1996 Atlanta Olympics are displayed at the Atlanta History Center on Tuesday, July 20, 2021. The history center has an ongoing exhibit about the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

A quick perusal of eBay, Etsy or your average metro Atlanta estate sale yields gobs of 25-year-old Atlanta programs, posters, T-shirts and branded advertising pieces from companies like Coca-Cola and Budweiser.

One of the largest collections is currently on display at the Atlanta History Center. An exhibit includes everything from a prototype of Atlanta’s bid book to the International Olympic Committee to a pinstripe suit-wearing Cabbage Patch doll depicting one of the city’s Olympic boosters. Thousands of other mementos are stored in the back.

Caption

Michael Rose, executive vice president for collections and exhibitions at the Atlanta History Center, shows items from the 1996 Atlanta Olympic and Paralympic games housed at a storage facility at the museum on Tuesday, July 20, 2021. The history center has an ongoing exhibit about the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Biggest draws

It’s not all knickknacks.

Among more moneyed collectors, certain ’96 Olympic memorabilia can fetch five-figure price tags.

Medals are always considered winners. Beyond the gold, silver and bronze awarded to dominant athletes are so-called participation medals that every Olympian receives. Those can sell for about $200 a pop at auction.

James Smith, a sports memorabilia specialist at the Chicago-based auction house Hindman’s, said a gold medal from the Atlanta Games tends to pull in $20,000 to $30,000 at auction. Those awarded to famous athletes can attract even higher amounts, though they are rare.

Caption

Silver, gold and bronze medals from the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Medals are displayed in an exhibit at the Atlanta History Center on Tuesday, July 20, 2021. The history center has an ongoing exhibit about the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

The same holds true for pretty much anything associated with a major competitor’s Olympic performance.

A pair of golden, feather-light Nike track shoes worn by star sprinter Michael Johnson, who broke records while capturing the gold in the 200- and 400-meter dashes in 1996, sold for $6,000 at auction in 2012.

Smith said he’s seen fan-purchased basketballs signed by members of the 1996 U.S. men’s basketball team, nicknamed the Dream Team III, sell for $500.

ExploreMore coverage of the Atlanta Olympic Games 25th anniversary

But nothing touches what “The People’s Champion” can command.

One of the most surprising moments from the Games, when Muhammad Ali lit the Olympic cauldron, his arm quivering from Parkinson’s disease, is still considered one of the most iconic in sports history. Anything connected almost inevitably draws big bucks.

Caption

Muhammad Ali lit the cauldron at the opening ceremonies for the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. (Andy Clark / Reuters)

Credit: Andy Clark

Credit: Andy Clark

Organizers produced an estimated 17,000 Olympic torches made of aluminum and Georgia pecan wood for the torch relay that year. Those tend to sell for about $1,500 at auction these days, but any with Ali’s signature have been known to rake in three to 10 times that. (Though some collectors have claimed to possess the actual torch Ali used to light the cauldron, the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, Ky., says it houses the original.)

“Anyone who remembers those Games can close their eyes and picture that exact image,” said Kendall Capps, a sports specialist at Julien’s Auctions, explaining the appeal of such items. “It’s etched in everyone’s minds.”

ExploreLooking back: Olympian Teresa Edwards watched Ali in awe in 1996

Caption

Olympic torches from the 1996 Atlanta torch relay sit in a storage facility at the Atlanta History Center on Tuesday, July 20, 2021. The history center has an ongoing exhibit about the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Pin trades continue

There are still collectors and traders who enjoy indulging in the nostalgia of the ’96 Games through smaller-dollar trinkets.

Until the pandemic, several dozen would congregate monthly in a back room at The Varsity to buy, sell and trade pins from the event. The Midtown restaurant became an unofficial trading post during the Games due to its proximity to the athlete’s village, and the pin-heads who returned month after month found community as much as they did additions to their collections.

Caption

Pin traders look over goods in a tent at the downtown Atlanta location of the Varsity restaurant at Spring Street and North Avenue on Sunday July 28, 1996 during the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia. (AJC Staff Photo/Rich Mahan)

Credit: RICH MAHAN

Credit: RICH MAHAN

One of the organizers of the gatherings, still on hold because of COVID-19, is Scott Reed. The Lilburn banker delved into the pin-trading world when he arrived at the 1996 Games toting a bag of 50 pins from his employer. He figured he’d trade the bunch for 10 other pins and be on his way. He was pleasantly surprised when he returned home with 50 new pins.

ExploreAtlanta’s pin fever returns with 2016 Olympics

A lifelong hobby was born and he estimates he now owns thousands. Among his favorites: a pin he received from South African swimmer Penny Heyns minutes after she won gold at the Olympic pool.

“It’s a great way to meet people,” said Reed, who’s since attended four other Olympic Games. “You can walk up to anybody, and if you have a pin you can start a conversation.”

Caption

Scott Reed shows off a collection of Olympic pins at his home in Lilburn. Reed’s hobby took him to Sydney, Nagano, Japan; Lausanne, Switzerland; and London. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Credit: Hyosub Shin

The value of most pins depends on the collector. Some seek out the pins that each participating country distributes to athletes for each Games. Others gravitate to those tied to sporting events like equestrian or track or those issued by media outlets such as NBC.

But overall, the rarer the more prized. Nicholas Wolaver, an Atlanta-based public relations executive and Olympics enthusiast, spent years hunting for a brooch-like pin of five golden letter As arranged in a

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Atlanta Olympic memorabilia live on, but not making many people rich

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