Collectibles: Passing the Torch
Craig Perlow, a collector and dealer of Olympic memorabilia, stores his entire collection in his two-bedroom townhouse in Norcross, Ga., a suburb of Atlanta. His sellable inventory is in the basement, while his pins and badges are in boxes and jewelry cases. Important documents, including a handwritten letter from Pierre de Coubertin, the principal founder of the modern Olympic Games, are encapsulated in plastic sheets and stored in a document folder. And his most precious pieces, such as a torch from his participation in the 2002 Salt Lake City relay, are on display where he can see them.
Perlow, a former real estate broker from New York, turned his hobby into a vocation. At the Montreal Olympic Games in 1976 he obtained his first pin. Then he scoured New York–area antiques and collectibles shows for his subsequent pieces. "I’ve always embraced diversity and internationalism," he says. "And the Olympics are a natural extension of that."
One piece prominently displayed in his home is a participation diploma from the 1924 Paris Olympics that was given to John Coard Taylor, an athlete from Princeton; Perlow found it sitting atop an antique dresser at a Pier show in New York and purchased it for $750. Taylor ran in the men’s 400 meters, a race won by Eric Liddell—the Flying Scotsman—who dropped out of the 100-meter race because it took place on a Sunday, which went against his religious views, and competed in the 400 meters instead. "Eric Liddell’s pace was so unexpectedly fast that Taylor stumbled across the finish line fifth without hope for a medal," Perlow says. That detail, as well as the race’s depiction in the film Chariots of Fire, causes Perlow to treasure the diploma, which he estimates to be worth roughly $4,000 but swears he will never sell.
Perlow stays away from award medals for monetary reasons, and because athletes from poorer countries sometimes sell theirs to ease financial distress. Ingrid O’Neil, a friend of Perlow’s and an auctioneer of Olympic collectibles, says that medals, especially those awarded to famous athletes, will always maintain value.
Collectors generally value torches, and they pay top dollar for those from earlier Olympics (the first torch relay was in 1936), which are more valuable because the relays were shorter and fewer torches were made. O’Neil cites a 1952 Helsinki torch, one of only 22, that sold in Europe in 2006 for just over $150,000, and a torch from the 1956 games in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy—one of fewer than 20 of this specific design—that she sold last year for $33,925. In June, Bonhams auctioned for $4,936 one of only 2,000 torches made for the 1948 games in London. In comparison, O’Neil says, more than 22,000 torches were made for the games in Beijing this August.
The real value of Olympic torches, however, lies in their histories. The items are usually the property of runners who participated in relays, and, like Perlow’s 1924 Paris diploma, each torch has a story that links owner and object. But despite Perlow’s obvious bond with the pieces in his collection, he has yet to regret a sale. "You know," he says, "we’re all only temporary caretakers of what we collect, and at some point you have to let go."