A Champion’s Golden Legacy: Jesse Owens’ Olympic medals go to auction

Aug 03, 2017 Leave Comment

After the sale of one of Jesse Owens’ 1936 Berlin Olympics Gold Medals at auction in 2013 – where it sold for a world record price of nearly US$1.5m – two more of the champion’s 1936 Gold Medals will soon go under the hammer. An eagerly anticipated event in the field of Olympic memorabilia, the history behind these important medals is just as fascinating as the medals themselves!

In the midst of pre-WWII unrest, as the storm clouds of war gathered over Europe, Berlin played host to the 1936 Summer Olympics. Germany’s then leader, Adolf Hitler, had planned for the event to showcase what a Nazi-led society could do, to broadcast its supremacy across the globe. It was meant to be an Olympics dominated by the Aryan race, with the whole world watching in awe.

History – in the form of quadruple-gold-medal-winning African-American Jesse Owens – had other plans.

A gifted athlete whose prowess had turned heads since his teens, Owens was an Alabama-born, Cleveland-raised prodigy. He defied both pre civil rights-era racial tensions and the expectations of the host country to claim four gold medals during his time in Berlin.

In two weeks’ time, two of Owens’ four 1936 Olympic Games Gold Medals will be sold at auction. Continuing a journey that has become a fascinating story in its own right, these historically priceless medals will become some of the most coveted treasures to ever go under the hammer.

Exactly 81 years ago today, Jesse Owens made a history-defining dash to claim gold in the 100 metres final, a crowd of 110,000 cheering ecstatically. The following day came gold in the long jump, then again in the 200 metres dash, and finally as the opening runner in the victorious US 100 metres relay team.

Decades later, in the 1990s, two of Jesse Owens’ gold medals were found stashed away in a cardboard box in a closet in Pittsburgh. According to Intelligent Collector’s Hector Cantú, their owner was unaware of the medals’ inherent value.

But how did they end up there?

Between 1954 and 1955, Cantú writes, Owens took up residence at Pittsburgh’s Bailey Hotel.

Despite his prodigious talent, he had struggled to find consistent work upon his return from the Olympics. Given the social landscape at the time, it’s fair to say that, in today’s world, things would have played out differently. When it came time to settle his bill, he didn’t have the necessary funds, and so handed over three of his gold medals to the hotel owner as compensation.

The eponymous Mr Bailey didn’t hold on to them for long. Also finding himself in financial difficulty soon after, he had needed to borrow money from a friend, Louis DeVito. Once again, when the time came, rather than repay DeVito in cash, Bailey handed his friend a pawn shop ticket for the three medals, which he had just taken to be sold. DeVito reportedly collected them, gave one back to Bailey – they were friends, after all – and then kept the other two in a shoebox in his closet.

According to Intelligent Collector, just one of Owens’ 1936 Berlin Olympic Gold Medals holds an estimated value of US$500,000 today; but in 2013, it was a sum even larger than this that spurred the DeVito family – now under the guiding hand of Louis’ son, Albert – to consider putting them up for auction.

Dancer and film star Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson had coincidentally been a friend of Owens, and had been the lucky recipient of one of his four gold medals as a gift. It was as an offer by the estate of his widow that the fourth gold medal went under the hammer, selling for a cool US$1.46 million – and making it the most expensive piece of Olympic memorabilia in history.

Whilst the sale price of the two medals has been set at US$500,000 each, who knows what they might sell for? Now that a precedent has been set, when Heritage Auctions place those medals up for grabs on August 19-20, their value has already been made abundantly clear. But to dismiss their worth as purely financial would be a mistake.
When Owens lined up for that 100 metres dash on August 3rd, 1936, we can only speculate as to what was going through his head, but there’s no way he could have foretold what would lie implicit in the magnitude of his Olympic success.

The 1936 Olympics was meant to be Hitler’s Olympics. Jesse Owens singlehandedly turned that on its head. This was Jesse Owens’ Olympics.

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