When Joan downsized from her Los Angeles home, she decided she didn’t really need her Olympic torch anymore. Joan was one of the original nine people who worked on the Olympic committee for the Los Angeles games in 1984. As an assistant vice president, it was her job to run information between the committee president Peter Ueberroth and the Olympic commissioner. Joan worked for the Olympic committee for seven years.
“After we were done,” she told me on the phone, “they gave me this box full of stuff. I got tons of T-shirts, and some great Olympic pins, which everyone is looking for. There were posters and participation medals. And there was a torch.”
The Olympic flame has its roots in ancient Greece, where a fire was kept burning for the entirety of the Olympics. The first torch relay, from Greece through the streets of the world and into the Olympic stadium, was organized by the Nazi party for the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Since then, the torch has been carried—without the flame going out—to each Olympic host site’s opening ceremony. The Olympic committee offers a slightly revised, Nazi-free version of history on their site, explaining that the torch represents “positive values that Man has always associated with fire” and that the relay represents “a message of peace and friendship amongst peoples.”
Joan didn’t feel much affection for her torch, and she had to downsize, so she listed her torch on eBay along with hundreds of other torches available on the site during these Olympic Games. “I don’t understand why people are spending this [much] money on Olympic things,” she said, “but I might as well make some money on it.”
Olympic torches are some of the rarest and most desirable of all Olympic collectibles. Unlike Olympic pins, which sell for fairly cheap and are easy to come by, an Olympic torch can cost an obscene amount of money.
Right now on eBay, there are hundreds of Olympic torches for sale—some of them at astounding prices. Torches from the 2012 London Olympics are listed anywhere from $3,000 to $6,500. A torch from the 1996 Atlanta Olympics is listed at $4,000. A 1956 Melbourne torch is listed at $15,000. Torches used just this year for the 2016 Rio Olympics are already listed at $4,000.
It’s rare for a person to have more than one torch, much less 10 or 12. According to Ingrid O’Neil, the torch expert for the Olympian Collectors Club, only two collectors in the world own a complete collection of both the summer and winter torches.
Most of the torches on eBay are fairly easy to come by. “The more recent torches have been made in enormous numbers (10,000 to 20,000) as the relay has gotten ever longer to reach as many places as possible, and accommodate as many torch bearers as possible,” O’Neil told me. “You probably will always find a torch in the low $1,000s.”
Olympic torches are pretty durable as well. Every torch contains fuel to keep the flame lit, and is designed in an aerodynamic shape so that it is easy for runners to carry it. The torches on average weigh somewhere between three and four pounds and can withstand anything nature might throw at them. Torches are created to keep the flame burning—be it in an airplane, on a windy street, or even underwater.
Torches in good condition are more valuable than torches that have been dropped or broken. And torches that are unused are more valuable than torches used in the race, because they are less likely to have been damaged by the flame or soot. A torch like Joan’s, which was never run and stayed safe in a garage for a few decades, is a great torch to own.
But not everyone understands the value of the Olympic torch. Many owners, like Joan, store them in their basements or in cardboard boxes. One eBay user I talked to (who declined to share his name or location) told me that he found the torch he was selling in the garbage.
“I was working for an agency that had submitted a design for a different Olympic Games. I assume they got this to inspire and inform the design team,” he wrote to me. “Imagine my surprise one evening to see that project, including this actual torch, out with the the coffee cups and orange peels!”
He fished it out and took it home. But years later, he’s realized that—though the torch is beautiful and interesting—it’s not something he really needs. “When the Olympics came around this year,” he wrote, “I realized that it was a great chance to capitalize on the value of something that is otherwise out of sight and mind.”
The torches for sale on eBay aren’t guaranteed to be originals, and there’s no way to tell from the photos what kind of condition they are in. “I worked earlier for a worldwide coin auction house, having to check for fakes and copies” O’Neil told me. “Unfortunately, this is getting more and more important.
O’Neil is incredibly well educated. She has the European equivalent of an American PhD in History and can read 13 different languages. She doesn’t collect torches herself because she doesn’t want to compete with the collectors, but she does help sell torches in a regulated way. “I started with Olympic memorabilia auctions in 1990 and just held my 78th auction in July,” she said. She doesn’t know exactly how many torches she’s sold over the years, but since each auction sells between 10 and 30 torches, it’s reasonable to guess she’s facilitated the sales of more than 1,000 torches.
The most valuable torches are the rare ones. “Helsinki 1952 and Squaw Valley 1960: 23 torches. Stockholm Equestrian Games 1956 and Innsbruck 1964: [all made] less than 10 torches! They will sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars.” The 1952 Helsinki Summer Games torch sold for nearly $400,000 at auction in Paris in 2011.
“I think some of the Olympic torches that have been carried by celebrities get pretty pricey as well,” Joan told me. And she’s right. Last year, an Olympic torch carried by Caitlin Jenner at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics ultimately sold at auction for $24,000, well over its tangible worth.
Most of the value of the Olympic torch is personal. Almost no one I spoke with who had carried the torch on the Olympic relay was selling the torch they carried. “I would never sell my own torch,” an eBay user told me. “That one’s important to me.”
But the other torches, the ones found in office trash cans or boxes of memorabilia long forgotten in a garage, are being listed quickly on eBay. The demand for Olympic collectibles spikes during Olympic season every two years, then quickly evaporates. Now’s the time to sell a torch, and certainly the time to buy.
Joan listed her torch on eBay the week before the Olympics and within a week she had a bid. On Friday, Joan sold her 1984 Olympic torch for $1,075.
“The torch was really special. But it’s like: Why do I need it? I’m not a collector. I mailed it to him today,” Joan told me. She described how she packed up the torch carefully and sent the buyer a special bonus gift (an Olympic torch pin) before she paused and quietly admitted, “I do sort of miss the torch now that I’ve sent it away.”