British medal collecting: The basics of buying, preserving, researching

British medal collecting has been popular for about 150 years but has really only caught on in the United States in the last half century. Groups of medals attributed to a single recipient command premium prices both here and across the ocean.

By Tony Farrell, Founding Member,  
British Medals Forum (www.britishmedalforum.com)

What follows is a relatively condensed overview that may be used either by the budding collector, or the curious, to answer some of the many questions that he or she may have regarding this bewildering subject. The views are that of the author and some content (notably cleaning) will undoubtedly be contentious—other collectors having differing viewpoints.

Market values have purposely been omitted as they are constantly changing. Various factors influence a medal’s value whether it is condition, rarity (both to unit and on the whole), clasp combination or unit desirability. Unlike coins, the condition of a medal does not necessarily detract from its market value—especially if it is a scarce issue. A working knowledge of current medal prices can be gleaned by studious scrutiny of dealers’ lists, websites and auction catalogs.

Getting started

There are several ways of sourcing medals. The traditional method is by visiting specialist dealers’ shops or scouring market stalls, pawnbrokers and antique establishments for that elusive bargain. Pawnbrokers are on the wane these days and antique shops are generally unsuitable.

These non-specific dealers tend to know exactly what they have and what it’s worth on the market—thanks to price guides and the profusion of information on the Internet. Whilst medals at the lower end of the price scale can usually be found, any medal of great worth would undoubtedly go either straight to auction or be sold on to a specialist dealer. So it is safe to say that the days of finding a rarity amongst ephemera and odds and ends is pretty much a thing of the past.

The number of specialist collectors’ shops is also diminishing, partly due to rising rents, but largely due to the Internet, which solves the problem of renting premises and also gives the dealer the opportunity of creating a far greater customer base than would be possible by more conventional means. There are, however, several shops around that are most definitely worth visiting.

As has already been mentioned, the Internet has taken medal collecting in to the 21st century, and the collector can choose to either purchase via this medium, or simply utilise it to search for specific items for sale. For the more adventurous, Internet auctions such as Speedbid and eBay offer an alternative. But beware!

By far, the safest way to purchase medals is from an established dealer. Many dealers do not have premises but supply by mail order and whilst some provide their lists free of charge (to previous customers), most can be subscribed to for a modest fee. Most dealers attend militaria collectors’ shows that take place throughout the year. These are advertised nationally in Military Trader. Militaria shows are the ideal way to learn the craft as well as meet like-minded collectors and also to establish a rapport with the vendors.

The other alternative is by attending auctions and specialist medal auctioneers such as Spink, DNW and Bosley’s publish illustrated quarterly catalogs that list items for sale and their estimated hammer price. These are available by subscription. The advantage of an auction is that one can sometimes purchase a bargain, although this can be offset by the buyers’ premium (usually around 15%) thus making the gain marginal. The disadvantage is that bidding wars can ignite if other collectors are after a specific medal that has taken one’s fancy.

Care AND Storage

The cleaning of medals has always been a contentious subject—especially if you’re a Regimental Sergeant Major! In the case of foreign medals, such as the NATO and UN issues that can be encountered in groups, then polishing is definitely a bad idea as they are coated, or “washed” and were never intended to gleam on the parade square. It is, however, perfectly fine to clean them using a mild detergent and a soft cloth, using a soft natural bristle brush in detailed areas. This removes any contaminants that could have long-term detrimental effects to the preservation of the item in question.

Some collectors baulk in horror when the words “medal” and “clean” are used in the same sentence, much preferring the tarnishing, or patina, that the item accrues over time; but they too appreciate the benefits of sensible precautions to preserve and enhance items within their collections.

Most British medals are struck in either silver or cupro-nickel. The use of the latter is a relatively recent development since 1945, and unless otherwise stated, it should be understood that the vast majority of medals are manufactured from silver.

Medals were, and are, meant to be worn and are therefore more resilient than most would think. Certainly in the case of British medals, they were—and are—usually cleaned and polished with reverence by their recipients. When stored properly, there is no need to clean them unless absolutely necessary. Some of the more recent British and Commonwealth issues such as the 2002 Jubilee medal are plated to a mirror finish and need no cleaning whatsoever.

It must be remembered that tarnish, or toning, are forms of surface corrosion and as such, can be just as damaging in the long term as excessive polishing. The key is in correct storage methods. In most cases they should get a good clean and even a very gentle polish for the more forlorn looking specimens. This does them no harm whatsoever and it enables stabilization and control of further contamination.

Dirt and tarnishing can also hide anomalies such as the marks produced by erasure. Bronze medals only require a detergent wash and a light brushing to bring out a pleasing finish. So, a sensible clean and proper storage does a medal no harm—especially if you intend keeping it for a length of time. The final decision of whether to clean or not, however, is down to individual preference.

Ribbons

Replacing ribbons is another contentious subject among collectors. “It’s the original ribbon!” is often heard, with some individuals chancing their arm at gaining a few extra dollar in a sale. There is no such thing as an original ribbon in the general sense. You may have a contemporary ribbon, and indeed, some boxed examples of medals do retain the ribbons they were issued with (and to all intents are original), but there is no practical way of proving originality. In any case, it’s the medal that is of primary importance.

Ribbons, it should be remembered, were replaced regularly as medals were worn more often than they are today and the material soon became soiled or damaged. In any case, the ribbons for most British issues are easily available from dealers. A dirty medal, suspended from a tatty scrap of ribbon is hardly pleasing to the eye, and few will be found in museums and private collections.

There is, however, nothing to stop you from removing the shabby ribbon and replacing it with a modern manufactured example for display purposes—while storing the original piece. Do not throw it away, as you may wish to sell the medal later, and some collectors prefer old ribbon, as it adds character. Grime from old and obscure ribbons that are sometimes difficult to replace can be removed by gently swabbing it with surgical spirit and cotton wool. Do not wash in detergent, and if in doubt, leave it alone.

Clasps help tell the history of a medal’s recipient. Used to denote a specific campaign or action, they are usually attached directly to the medal’s suspender with subsequent clasps added above.

Clasps and Naming

Loose and missing clasps. Some medals were never issued without a clasp, and butchered examples of such issues can be found, usually having had their original clasps removed for use on other medals. In this case, it is hardly worth bothering parting with money as it is sometimes impossible (in the case of colonial recipients) to verify entitlement. The medal may well suffice as a “gap filler” in your collection, but it will appreciate in value little—if at all.

Riveting a replacement clasp on to a medal, even if the recipient is entitled to it, should be avoided. If a clasp is missing or has been replaced, then (ideally) a copy of the relevant paperwork should be sufficient proof of entitlement. Certainly with older medals, a non-contemporary rivet on a clasp may well indicate interference—and an experienced collector should spot this. Care should also be exercised when one encounters unofficial or “jewellers’ copy” clasps.

It must also be taken in to account that soldiers were often left to their own devices when issued with subsequent clasps, when possible, having their clasps professionally attached by the local silversmith. Also, the use of rods instead of rivets was reasonably widespread—especially in India, and indeed is still practised by some mounting specialists.

The more current issues, such as the General Service Medal, can often be encountered with subsequent clasps simply slipped over the ribbon and secured to the already existing clasp with a couple of loops of thread. This is due to unit tailors not having the resources for riveting. The trend for “court mounting” also solves the problem of loose clasps—albeit short term. Of consequence, different styles of clasp attachment can be found, and only by experience and knowledge can the collector tread with confidence in an increasingly nefarious collecting field.

As far as long service medals are concerned, clasps (or more correctly, “bars”) for extra service are invariably either stitched on or slide-on affairs. Verifying eligibility in some cases is very difficult indeed and caution should be exercised when parting with money. Some unscrupulous vendors may attempt to glean extra revenue by simply adding a clasp. Any long service medal with a further service clasp should ideally come with some provenance to warrant any price hike. Caveat emptor!

While most British medals are named on the rim, some, like the WWI Star, are named on the reverse. If you are not familiar with naming styles, be sure to inspect the entire rim and reverse of a medal (this is particular important when the medal is star- or cross-shaped).

Naming

To the uninitiated, the whole business of naming appears to be a minefield, and indeed, to the unwary it most certainly is. For the most part, British and colonial medals are issued named, with varying styles attributable to certain issues. Certain medals were issued unnamed, leaving the recipient the choice of either having it done privately by a professional engraver, or simply not having it named at all.

For example, the Crimea medals can be found named in a number of styles due to many being issued unnamed – although the recipient could return his medal for official impressment. They were also named at regimental level, using various styles, as well as being privately engraved by the individual.

Victorian issues to native troops tended to be engraved in a light running serif script, but the later medals tended to be impressed. Renaming is not uncommon. However, just because a medal shows signs of alteration, this does not necessarily indicate foul play. Medals were often lost or pawned to fund drink and gambling; and the owner’s only recourse was to obtain replacements and have the original recipient’s name erased.

There are many reasons why a medal may be renamed. The author has encountered medals named to individuals who were clearly not entitled to them*, but a Distinguished Conduct Medal or Military Medal would certainly guarantee the fraudulent wearer a few free drinks in the local pub! Not good for the researcher, but certainly interesting from a social history viewpoint. Only by careful study, taking notes and by handling as many different medals as possible will the collector gain confidence in this vital aspect of collecting.

*Recipients of gallantry awards are published in the London Gazette, as are long service awards to officers – and lately other ranks. Recipients of long service medals are published in orders pertaining to the appropriate arm of service. Colonial recipients are published in the various colonial gazettes.

Today, there are many easily accessed archives available online to aid in the research of a medal or group. But, like most areas of militaria, the more material that accompanies a medal or group, the better!

Fakes and Copies

Fake medals fall in to two distinct categories: “Good” and “bad.” A fake medal is meant to deceive, so it’s difficult to see why poor attempts at replication are even undertaken, as even the most inexperienced collector should be able to spot a bad apple. If it has webbed feet, quacks, and looks like a duck, then it is invariably a duck! Likewise, if a medal looks like it’s been made from lead and painted silver, then it’s highly unlikely it being something meant to be worn with pride.

Novice, as well as the more experienced collector, should take every opportunity to familiarise themselves with as many issues as possible to hone their observational skills. You can never have too much knowledge!

More dangerous, and outright forgery, has been around for longer than one would think and there are some extremely convincing fakes circulating. Modern laser copying techniques have enabled the fraudsters to produce certain medals that are almost flawless, and that have fooled even some of the more experienced collectors—right down to construction and the correct naming style. Thankfully, long service issues have largely escaped the attentions of the fakers, but it’s only a matter of time before they do. Be on guard!

Copies are a different matter. All manner of issues have been copied over the years for a variety of reasons. Even items at the cheaper end of the scale have been produced, but these should fool nobody. Copies, until recently, were cast as one piece from soft metal and washed with either a silver or bronze-colored coating. They have a crude waxy appearance that lacks definition and are easily bent out of shape. They also have a seam around the centre of the rim, which is a by-product of the casting.

More recent copies have been produced as unofficial replacement medals for those who have lost their original issues. Like the above, they too have been cast from a single piece of metal, although the use of soft, pliable metals has been replaced by more durable materials such as cupro-nickel. This is then plated with rhodium – a mirror-like finish being the result. This is the giveaway. These medals are usually marked with the word “copy” under the suspension claw on the reverse, but examples of certain issues have not.

Display and Storage

This is down to personal factors and basically depends on how much space you have available to either store or display your collection. Not everyone is lucky enough to have their own “den” in a basement, with every inch of wall space filled with a glittering array of framed examples. Most collectors opt for discrete storage drawers and shy away from openly displaying their cherished possessions in frames. This is mainly due to frames being impractical for the removal and handling of the items, but also due to the effect an open display has on insurance premiums.

Display cabinets are available from specialist cabinet manufacturers, but are often custom made to individual requirements and can be expensive. Should you be adventurous enough to attempt to build your own, then care should be taken in choosing which materials to use in the construction of your cabinet, as certain woods, solvents and plastics emit chemicals that could be detrimental to the long term care of your collection.

One must also be careful to avoid materials that hold moisture, such as felt and baize, which also emit chemicals that cause tarnishing of silver. Polyfoam is a much more suitable material. Rosewood and walnut are the best woods to use in cabinet construction, as other woods contain resins that can damage the surface of medals. Solvent glues are also to be avoided.

Metal Bisley cabinets are also an ideal storage option. Available from office suppliers such as Staples, a ten-draw cabinet can easily store around a hundred single medals. Though not as pleasing to the eye as a wooden cabinet, their innocuous appearance can be an added security measure. It is advisable to either purchase a lockable example or have a locking system fitted.

By far, the most practical way of storing your collection is in a medal album. These consist of polythene pouches that form a page, and is the usual form of medal carriage for dealers attending shows and fairs. These pages can then be inserted in to a folder that can be stored on a bookshelf. It is a popular method of storage, but again, care should be taken to use only archive quality materials, and these can be obtained from most established dealers.

Chemistry lessons can be baffling at the best of times, so should any collector have problems remembering what to (and what not to) use, then local museums are usually willing to offer sound advice—for a small donation of course.

Some collectors store their items in safes, and whilst there is a school of thought that questions the point in having them if they never see the light of day, it does rather enable one to sleep soundly in the knowledge that your precious acquisitions are under lock and key.

Hopefully, the above information will go some way to arming the newcomer with sufficient basic knowledge that will enable either him or her to avoid the pitfalls inherent with any specialised hobby.

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