Once or twice a year, I have the privilege to process a large collection of military medals. Since I don’t retain facts like I used to, each time is a process of discovery as I learn the market of historic medals and the nuances that makes one “valuable” and another barely worth its “melt-weight.”
While researching a large lot of medals this past week, I had to consult several auction companies’ sales records. I recognized an interesting—but not surprising—trend. One U.S. company that specializes in military medal sales had just only about a 30 percent sell-through on its most recent sale. What seemed to draw the most bidding attention in the United States category were named Purple Hearts, Bronze and Silver Stars, and numbered Mexican Service medals. Most of the other U.S. awards seemed to languish. Foreign awards, except for the obvious German/Third Reich and Soviet pieces, all seemed very flat and drew very little bidding. The exception to this was British medals.
When it comes to medals, the Brits got it right. They have had a long history of issuing a variety of campaign medals complete with individual clasps or bars commemorating particular actions. But most importantly from a collector’s perspective, the British have traditionally inscribed or impressed the medals with the name of the recipient. These “identified” medals are favorites with collectors because they provide the foundation for further research to recover the history of the soldier’s role in a particular campaign or action. Generally speaking, a collector stands a good chance of increasing the value of a medal by taking the time to research and assemble a dossier on the soldier. The more information about the soldier that can be compiled, the higher the value of the medal. This is why collecting British medals continue to be a strong and vibrant part of the hobby.
WHAT ABOUT THE REST OF THE WORLD?
So why aren’t medals of Belgium, France, Italy or other nations maintaining their place in the market? Well, since they are generally not inscribed with the recipient’s name, they become “place-holders,” appealing to the “coin-collector side” of a collector’s brain. When that coin-collector side of the brain is dominating the thinking, a collector tries to acquire a “one-of-everything” type of assemblage. For years, his has been a prevalent trait that drives a lot of people within our hobby: DI collectors, patch collectors, gun collectors, bayonet collectors, sword collectors… the list can go on and on. Putting together a “one-of-everything” collection provides a very logical, progressive display with a clear-cut beginning and ending.
With that said, the “one-of-everything” collector is an aging beast. Growing up in the years following WWII, these collectors usually began with stamps or coins and graduated to patches or medals if they had an interest in military history. With decades of hunting and finding items to fill in the gaps, their collections are nearly complete. They no longer need to hunt for the common Belgian or French medals but rather, the very rare and obscure. Once they have a WWI Croix de Guerre, there is very little incentive to buy another.
Whereas new collectors often begin on the path of “one-of-everything,” today’s preponderance of available supporting information is molding new members of our fraternity into different kinds of collectors. When a new collector looks for a Vietnam first pattern jungle jacket, a German WWII M36 helmet or a U.S. WWI uniform group, the most important question they ask themselves is not, “Do I already have one?” Rather, they are compelled to ask if the item is “identified.” A name, initials or even a laundry number provides the new collector with the hope of researching the individual soldier’s history. The power of the Internet makes this more plausible than ever.
As an example of how strong the ability to research has become, allow me to tell you about a uniform I was researching last week: It was a run-of-the mill, simple, WWII RAF Summer Dress tunic with the insignia of a low-ranking pilot. His name was written on the tailor’s tag. The name was unusual enough that I thought a Google search might yield results. I typed his name, service number and “RAF” before hitting “return.” Within the blink of the eye, I had a screen full of results to sift through until I spotted the pilot’s name coupled with the term “RAF.” Another click and I was looking at the pilot’s name on the roster of Squadron No. 34, South African Air Force, a Lancaster-flying heavy bomber unit.
After a second Google search, this time adding the newly learned squadron designation, I learned there was a Facebook page dedicated to No. 34 Squadron. Within about 20 minutes of posting a query on the Squadron’s Facebook page, a fellow from Poland replied. He explained that this particular pilot died in an aerial accident in April 1945 when his Lancaster plowed into another plane from No. 74 Squadron.
Inside of one hour, I had taken a rather plain RAF tunic and was able to assemble a fairly good history of the soldier who wore it. This is amazing. Just 10 years ago, it would have taken months—if not years—of letter writing, travel to archives and numerous inter-library loans to assemble that amount of information on a particular soldier.
It is no wonder, that just a decade ago, “one-of-everything” collections were the norm. It was far more satisfying to search for widget-x to fill in a missing hole than it was to type letter after letter with the hope of discovering some nugget of information on a particular item.
U.S. Medals—Somewhere in Between
But back to medals: Unlike Great Britain, the United States has had a sketchy history of marking medals with a particular soldier or sailor’s name or other form of identification. Those that are engraved—like some Purple Hearts, Distinguished Service Crosses, Marine Good Conduct (actually, the Marines seem to be better at marking medals than the other branches!) or Mexican Service medals to name a few—command premium prices. But inscribed U.S. medals are the exceptions. The vast majority of medals issued by the U.S. military have no markings, whatsoever, to tie them to the original recipient.
I don’t know why this is. Perhaps, the U.S. places a higher value on the act that warranted a particular award than the person who performed the act. To me, giving someone a medal without taking the time to make that medal unique for that recipient is like giving someone a gift card for Christmas. Both say, “I care enough to give you something, just not enough to actually spend the time to make it special or unique for you.”
Because the number of “officially engraved” U.S. medals has been rather limited, many recipients took it upon themselves to have their medals engraved. Today, the wide variety of privately inscribed medals makes collecting personalized U.S. medals a hobby strewn with uncertainty. It is especially difficult for a collector to recognize whether a medal was inscribed 60 or six years ago. Regardless, engraved, “identified” U.S. medals command a lot of interest and remain a viable militaria commodity.
The Exception to the Rule
Whereas very few are inscribed or attributed, the medals of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union continue to remain exceedingly popular. After Third Reich collectors assemble their “one-of-everything” foundation (no easy task), they turn their attentions to minute manufacturing differences, concentrating on particular makers, catch and pin designs or material of manufacture.
Collectors of Soviet medals do have the opportunity to collect soldier-identified medals, as many were numbered. However, the language barrier makes this very difficult for most English-speaking collectors. The number of awards the Soviet Union produced make collecting affordable, challenging and rewarding. Perhaps with the end of the Cold War still within our recent memory, nostalgia may be playing a role in keeping Soviet awards popular.
The downside, however, is fakers wasted no time learning the market and have flooded the hobby with some very convincing reproductions. From the most common sports award all the way to Knight’s Crosses or Orders of the Red Banner, almost every medal issued by either of these nations has been reproduced. Collecting Third Reich or Soviet medals is not a hobby for the uninformed collector.
The Future of Medal Collecting
Collecting medals, while intrinsically a “one-of-everything” type of hobby, will continue to grow and remain popular for years. Emphasis, of course, will always fall on the engraved and/or attributed medals and groups, but there will always be the need to “fill in the holes” as new collectors expand their desire to chronicle military history through the medals and awards of the soldiers who earned them.
The emphasis is going to continue to be on medals or groups that can be conclusively linked to a particular soldier. These types of medals seem to be slowly growing in value with the prices of exceptional examples actually growing quickly. The driving force in increasing the value, though, seems to be taking the time to research and develop a history of the soldier who earned the award—not a bad thing, in my opinion.
Even though many collectors say, “It’s about the history,” buying, selling and collecting medals provides the financial basis to really prove it. A person can buy a whole bunch of medals, but if he doesn’t take the time to discover the history of why a soldier received the award, the value of that collection will remain flat, or even fall in the years to come.
Preserve the Memory to Promote the Hobby,
Editor, Military Trader and Military Vehicles Magazine