OAKVILLE — The managing director of the Jesse Owens Museum in Oakville has watched the online auction bidding for one of the 1936 Olympic star’s gold medals with wishful thinking.
Nancy Pinion said she would be delighted if the winning bidder would agree to bring the cherished medal to the museum in eastern Lawrence County, near where Owens was born as a son of sharecroppers and spent the first eight years of his life.
“The most frequently asked questions from guests are ‘Do you have his medals?’ followed by ‘So where are they?’ Visitors are quite disappointed that we do not have them,” Pinion said about the museum, which opened in 1996.
“Our dream would be for a philanthropist to purchase a medal and place it in the museum for viewing. What more fitting or appropriate place is there than Jesse Owens Museum for such an important artifact? This would allow the public to view as they peruse the museum and learn about his legacy.”
Pinion said the museum will try to contact the winning bidder. "We'll certainly request they consider loaning it to us, even for a short while," she said.
The children of the late Olympic weightlifter John Terpak Sr. are auctioning the medal at goldinauctions.com. The auction house said Terpak was a good friend of Owens and that Owens gave it to him. As of Wednesday morning, goldinauctions.com had received a high bid of $270,000 for the medal. Bidding started at $250,000. The auction concludes Dec. 6, according to a website posting.
Owens won four gold medals in the 1936 Berlin Games in track and field, and the performance by the African American became legendary because it refuted host Adolf Hitler's myth of Aryan supremacy.
In 2013, one of Owens’ medals was auctioned for $1.46 million, and the winning bidder was Ron Burkle, co-owner of the Pittsburgh Penguins. The family of the late Bill “Bojangles” Robinson sold that medal. It is reported that Owens gave his friend Robinson the medal. Pinion said she was unsuccessful trying to get in touch with Burkle about a possible short-term display of the medal in the museum.
The other two original medals were reportedly sold at a 2017 auction conducted by Heritage Auctions. The auction house never released information of the winning prices and did not return a message from The Daily this week. Owens gave the medals to a Pittsburgh hotel owner after being unable to pay for an extended stay, according to media reports.
Owens won the medals in the 100 meters, 200 meters, 400-meter relay and long jump.
Pinion said she realizes having the medal on loan to the museum would require additional security. “I cannot even imagine how this would boost our attendance and exposure,” she said.
Through September, the museum has attracted 42,000 visitors from 24 countries and 48 states this year. In 2016, an Olympic year, the museum had 93,468 visitors, including 5,569 from 13 countries, according to Pinion. The museum’s admission fee is $5 per person.
Lawrence County historian Joyce Cole agreed with Pinion that displaying one of Owens’ medals would take the local museum to the next level.
“We’re fortunate in Lawrence County to have a museum that’s attracted visitors from around the world,” Cole said. “The museum is state-of-the art and awe-inspiring. The only thing lacking is at least one of Owens’ medals, which we’ve wished for since the museum was in its planning stages. Wouldn’t it be exciting to have one of them on display, if only for a day or a week? It’s fitting that one or more of the medals should be on view in the community where Jesse’s story began.”
In the 1950s, Owens reported to the International Olympic Committee that his four medals were lost. The committee replaced them and the replacement medals are on display at Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, where Owens starred, setting several world records.
Owens’ daughter Marlene Owens Rankin, managing director of the Jesse Owens Foundation in Chicago, is not distracted by the current or past auctions.
“Our father’s medals went missing many years ago. They were replaced in the 1950s and are now a part of The Jesse Owens Collection at The Ohio State University,” Rankin wrote The Daily when asked to comment on the present auction.
Founder of Goldin Auctions, Ken Goldin has the medal as the showcase of the company’s holiday auction.
According to Goldinauctions.com, Olympic medals expert James D. Greensfelder has analyzed the medal and deemed it an authentic example minted for the 1936 Games. His letter of authenticity also accompanies the medal, the auction house said. A letter of authenticity from PSA/DNA also comes with the medal, Goldinauctions.com said.
“No athletic award carries the same historical weight and value as Jesse Owens’ gold medal-winning performance at the 1936 Olympics, for no athlete ever achieved nor proved as much as Owens did during those Games,” Goldin said in a company statement. “Even though we have offered at auction some of the most iconic sports collectibles, it is the highest honor to share this museum-worthy item with the world.”