How to make a heroic investment

The market for military decorations has grown strongly in the last decade. Oliver Bennett examines the enduring appeal of medals with a history
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The Independent Online

At military anniversaries - such as this year's 60th anniversary of D-Day - the sight of the old soldiers in attendance is poignant: the medals on their chests a bittersweet reminder of conflicts survived. But medals do not just have memorial value to their owners - they also represent a growing market for collectors. "There has been a big rise in medal collecting," says Nimrod Dix of specialist auctioneers Dix Noonan Webb. "I'd say it has risen steeply in the last five to 10 years."

At military anniversaries - such as this year's 60th anniversary of D-Day - the sight of the old soldiers in attendance is poignant: the medals on their chests a bittersweet reminder of conflicts survived. But medals do not just have memorial value to their owners - they also represent a growing market for collectors. "There has been a big rise in medal collecting," says Nimrod Dix of specialist auctioneers Dix Noonan Webb. "I'd say it has risen steeply in the last five to 10 years."

The reasons for this rise are manifold, but a prime reason is an increase in medals being bought as investments. "Some years ago, investors became worried about stocks, shares and pensions," says Peter Helmore, secretary of the Orders and Medals Research Society, which has 2,800 members worldwide.

"Medals were rising in value, and many thought it could be a good hedge to their funds. This is all very well, but my comment to these investors would be 'What do you know about medals?'"

For the real medal collector doesn't do it for the medal itself: he or she does it for the history and the human stories that the medals represent. "True collectors are interested in the men and women behind the medals." says Helmore. "If you get a medal from Burma, or of someone who was in the first day of the Somme, it's heady stuff."

Clearly it can become obsessive: Helmore himself thinks of his medals as "friends", and considers himself a "custodian" - an attitude prevalent in the medal-collecting community. "It's highly addictive," says military historian and medal collector Michael Hargreave Mawson ( see box above right).

It's a hobby that rewards the collector who wants to dig a little, and here British medals are particularly fruitful. "British medals have aunique status among collectors because they often have the recipient's name on them," says Hargreave Mawson. "This isn't usually the case with foreign medals, and it makes British awards not only easier but more satisfying to research."

This inbuilt provenance also has the advantage of making British medals easier to trace, and the owner of a medal wishing to find out more should go to the National Archive in Kew, or employ one of its accredited researchers, in order to make a start. Collectors find this research to be part of the fun. "You're not researching the medal itself, but its background," says David Collett of medal dealers Norman W Collett. "Therefore, it can become a bit of a detective story, and that's what drives the real collector."

Medals come from a variety of sources. There are medal fairs, lists posted on the internet, dealers and auction houses. And they enter the market in several ways. Some circulate among dealers. Others are inherited and sold on; or a family dies out and they are released by a house clearance onto the market.

Occasionally, impoverished recipients sell them. "A hundred years ago, a lot went to pawnbrokers," says Helmore, adding that many people do not realise what they are worth.

"Recently a woman was referred to Spinks [an auction house in London that specialises in medals]. She was in great hardship and was bowled over to find that her medal sold for £8,000."

Often, family history is an induction into the medal collecting fraternity. "When I was six my father presented me with his war medals and that started it all," says medal enthusiast Megan Robertson, who runs an information website for medal researchers.

"I then picked up an Iron Cross for a fiver and took it from there." She doesn't collect any longer, preferring to remain a medal historian, but Robertson confirms that history and human interest motivate collectors more than the joy of shiny things. "Some want to find out about the regiment number and personal records of these soldiers' lives. Others have a genealogical motive and want medals belonging to their families, or if that proves too difficult, the type of medal that their ancestors were awarded."

Although it's a growing world, UK medal collectors tend to know of each other. "It's very much a community," says Hargreave Mawson. "There are certain tacit rules. For instance, you don't split a group - nor do you add missing medals to make up a group. And people tend not to poach on other collectors' areas." Because the acquisition of shiny metal is not the primary objective, condition is not a critical factor, either. "For instance, Waterloo medals are usually in atrocious condition," says Nimrod Dix. "It matters to a certain extent, but not to the point that it does in the world of coin collecting, say." It's considered a bonus if a medal comes with paperwork, although few do. Medals are bought and sold without related provenance, but as they can be easily checked, the opportunity for fraud is limited.

How many medal collectors are there? There is the ORMS's members and plenty of unaffiliated collectors. "And there are big collecting communities in America, Canada, Australia, India and New Zealand," says Hargreave Mawson. "I'd guess there are tens of thousands spread all over the world."

It's becoming a global market, and one that is affected by fashion. According to Hargreave Mawson, the Crimea is currently highly priced because this year is the 150th anniversary of the Crimean War. Earlier fads included Boer War medals, which experienced a spike in 1999 on the centenary of the outbreak of the war, and WWI awards when service papers were first released to the general public. Waterloo medals will always be highly desirable, and Zulu medal are worth far more than other medals of the period, which is all the fault of Michael Caine in the film." The Victoria Cross medal remains the best known medal to the layman, but anyone wanting one will have to shell out upwards of £50,000 and compete with Lord Ashcroft, who collects pretty well every VC that comes onto the market.

Inevitably, among the collectors are many military and ex-military personnel; mostly men in a wide range of age and background. "There are three kinds of collectors," says Mawson. "One is the opportunist type that buys everything they see. Then there is the 'examplist' type that wants one of everything: one Crimea, one Afghan etc. Finally there are the specialists." Most collectors, he adds, pass through the first two stages before arriving at the third.

Medals are not even necessarily kept at the collectors' home, partly as insurance premiums have risen sharply. Many collectors, such as Hargreave Mawson, keep their medals in banks rather than at home.

Unfortunately for entry-point collectors, the current inflation in the medal world has made it more difficult to start out. "The genuine collector is finding it very difficult," says Hargreave Mawson. "When I started you could buy medals for £1. Now the cheapest are around £15. My eight-year-old son is interested in becoming a medal collector but can't afford to pay £20 a time.

Meanwhile, his advice to those still wishing to collect medals is to read the literature, such as The Medal Yearbook, which gives valuations of medals, and to join the Orders and Medals Research Society.

Even so, medal enthusiasts are keen to point out that it's possible to start out as a collector. Helmore believes that for £10 you can start a collection and Nimrod Dix agrees. "Ten pounds will still get you a First World War medal," he says. From that point it rises, according to the scarcity, adds Helmore: a Northern Ireland service medal will be about £40; a Boer war medal can be found for about £200; a Falklands campaign medal will be about £250 upwards. At the top end there are several medals that will cost over £100,000.

Sadly, such prices mean that medals are attractive to thieves and forgers. Therefore, dealers and collectors have to learn to tell the good from the bad. "It's something you learn from handling medals," says Hargreave Mawson. "It may be the uneven thickness of the rim of the medal, or perhaps the style of naming isn't quite right."

Either way, beware - but don't be too put off. "I believe that medal collecting is very clean as hobbies go, particularly when compared to collecting paintings or furniture," says Dix. Read up about it, be prepared to spend a bit of money, and medal collecting can offer a pastime that offers a direct line into the fascinating field of human conflict.

Orders and Medals Research Society: www.omrs.org.uk

Megan C Robertson's website: www.medals.org.uk.

www.spink.com

www.dnw.co.uk.

Norman W Collett sells medals through his website www.medalsonline.co.uk.

Michael Hargreave Mawson runs the Crimean War Research Society website at www.crimeanwar.org

'It's about their history, not the pretty ribbons'

Michael Hargreave Mawson, 37, has collected medals since he was a little boy. "I'm from a military background, although I didn't join the army. My great-great-grandfather fought in Crimea and I started by begging medals from family and friends and got some interesting awards."

The 46th regiment became a specialist area, and although there have been "fallow periods" the military historian been collecting since.

Hargreave Mawson has about 250 "lots"; that is, groups or single medals to individual recipients, which amounts to about 500 medals. "Mine is by no means a large collection. People tend to get a bit obsessive about medals. We're anoraks, I'm afraid."

He says it's less the look of the medal; more the story behind it. "People often think we are attracted to the metals and pretty ribbons, but that isn't the case," says Mawson. "It's about the research that comes with them and the sense of history. You probably find it extraordinarily dull that I have the muster rules for the Crimean War. Personally, I find it fascinating."

So do the people at his internet medal collecting group; medalcollector-subscribe@yahoo groups.com.

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