One of the most satisfying aspects of militaria collecting is to connect with history. War medals and awards remain the best way of doing this directly with those who earned them in battle, sometimes through quite extraordinary acts of bravery and selflessness.
The war medals and awards market stands out in the field of militaria collecting as one of the stronger areas to invest, and one of the most historically interesting. Sought after antique and rare awards retain or increase their value regardless of the economic situation. Take for example last year’s sale of the medals of John Phillips, who was at the centre of the action when British ships came under attack from Argentine fighters during the Falklands War. These beat their reserve of £80-100k and sold for £120k.
But of course this is the top end of the market frequented by wealthy collectors and museums. The majority of the market is made up of affordable pieces, some rare and some of the more collectable with associated personal interest and stories of battle attached. At the lower end, you can pick up a Great War Victory medal for as little as £10. But as with all fields of collecting, it pays to have a little knowledge to inform your purchases. Here are our top five tips for building a medal collection:
1) Choose a collecting focus
Look online for medals or awards and it will quickly be evident this is a huge collecting field. The nature of military history means most items are associated with interesting events and stories. But to make some sense of this, the collector really needs to pick a subject. For most this means to focus on a particular war, campaign or battle, or to focus on a particular regiment. This could mean collecting from both opposing forces; it could also mean focussing on types of awards such as campaign medals, or awards for gallantry. And of course it means focussing within your price range. The rarest pieces are the domain of only the wealthiest collectors.
2) Study military history
For any field of collecting or investment, there is huge value in becoming an expert in your focus area. War medals and awards are no exception. Becoming an expert in the conflict, the campaigns and the battles means you develop a keen eye for identifying the more valuable pieces, those that may not come up for sale so frequently, or have a personal story attached. This approach to collecting is to many much more satisfactory, it brings the collector much closer to history. If an account exists of an individual’s contribution on the field of battle, their medal group can multiply in value many times over.
3) Pay the right price
We’ve already mentioned that the rarest medals and awards are the domain of the wealthiest collectors. No surprises there. But it’s worth understanding the factors that drive variation in award pricing. Type of medal and the specific battle in part determine rarity. Then there is the grade of award – gallantry medals for example are rarer the higher the grade, and naturally so are the prices. Couple an individual award with campaign medals and a soldier’s individual story, and you have a historically significant group, prized by collectors. The last major variable on pricing is condition. The award itself should be pristine with a paterna of age commensurate with its age. Ribbons are easily replaced if the cloth is frayed or damaged but always keep the originals. The best prices are for the most original, untouched items.
4) Treat them with respect
It’s not unheard of these days to come across stories in the press of medals found in dumpsters or thrown out with the trash. To the collector, it’s a startling disregard for the efforts of those who earned them in their line of duty. But to the uninterested or uneducated medals and awards don’t look valuable. Fortunately the collectors are there to restore the balance, but sometimes collectors can be over zealous in appreciating their collection. As well as respecting the medals for what they are, collectors need to respect the originality of their collection. Cleaning awards with metal or abrasive polishes is an absolute ‘no’. If medals must be cleaned, simply use a little warm soapy water and a soft cloth.
5) Don’t be afraid to speculate
Have in mind that a named medal is always a worthy purchase. If the collector takes the time to research the individual, a very personal story of conflict and service may be uncovered. Take for example the fore-mentioned WW1 Victory medal bought for £10. Around the rim you will find the name of the soldier, his service number, his rank and his regiment. Using the medal card index held in the National Archives (TNA) you may be able to research the man’s service history. With public records increasingly online, you may also be able to find out about the man’s family, his occupation before the war and where he lived. The interest of the individual’s service record, his contribution and any other personal facts you can find will not only increase the value of your low-priced acquisition, but it may also be far more rewarding than owning the medal itself. Afterall it could be all that remains to remind us of the individual.
So now you know our top five tips for buying medals and awards, where do you go next? Visit our Medals and Awards buying pages of course and put those tips into practice. You won’t find a Victoria Cross there just yet, but you may well find a well priced WW1 Victory medal. Good luck with your hunt!