A good ski pin collection can look like anything from high art to elementary-school trash. Or the symptom of an obsessive/compulsive disorder. Whatever motivates them, you'll find "pinheads" haunting most major ski races. And big gatherings, like last year's World Championships in Vail, Colo., or the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah, are occasions for true frenzy. Collectors and dealers set up tents. Stray nearby and you can be sucked into a mosh-pit of traders, often clad head-to-toe in pins and behaving like porkbelly commodity brokers.
And like commodities, pins are sold with an eye toward future value. "There are more than 250 official 2002 Winter Olympic pins in the marketplace already," says David Hyman, executive vice president of Aminco, a pin manufacturer. "By the time it's done, there will be 600 to 800 pins, most selling for $7 apiece." One of the most expensive 2002 Olympic pins on the market is a 1997 model from the original Salt Lake City bid. It first sold for $12 and can cost $200 now. But that's more representative of Olympic memorabilia mania than ski-pin collecting. There is no true market for non-Olympic ski pins, and most collectors do it for fun or to commemorate where they've been. Whether you wear a hat full of pins or you only own a couple, chances are you have some stuck (literally) somewhere. What are they worth? Probably nothing more than memories. And that's the point.
I've been collecting ski pins since I was a kid growing up in Aspen. I admire the aesthetics of a framed display, and the art of each individual pin. I like their shine, their smooth, cool surfaces, their varied forms and shapes. I spent last year coveting a collection for sale in Aspen. The seller wanted $2,500; they weren't worth that to me. Because for all of my tendency to be seduced like a pack-rat by every glittery pin I see, the essence of collecting lies in the places and times the pins represent.
My best pin is a tarnished silver pair of crossed skis¿beautifully detailed, clearly old. I can't see it without imagining a black-and-white photograph I have of my mother, skiing in the Forties, wearing the pin on her brown cable-knit sweater. Looking at an oval pin from the 1993 Austrian Special Olympics, I can still smell the slushy streets of Schladming. One from the Hahnenkamm takes me back to the clamor of the race, the costumes, the people with their faces painted like the Austrian flag and their noses pierced with Hermann Maier pins.
Even though I'd never sell them, I wonder what some of my prizes are worth. There's a clock-tower-shaped pin for the 1978 FIS World Championships that were never hosted in Jackson Hole, Wyo. I also have a pair of big, political-style buttons from the 1950 World Alpine Championships in Aspen, rare representatives of one of the seminal events in American skiing.
It's best to heed the words of Hyman: "Some people think of pins as an investment, but they're not." Whereas political buttons are widely bought and sold, ski pins are more likely to be hoarded in a jar or on an old ski hat. The bottom line is that pins are cheap, easy to collect and a ready flashback to anyplace you've ever skied. What more do you need from a collectable?