Medal News

Volume 44, Number 10, November 2006

Owners or guardians?

Volume 44, Number 10, November 2006

The recent announcement that Lord Ashcroft’s incredible collection of Victoria Crosses will be revealed for the first time in a new book and will, in due course, be put on display, has again opened up the age old debate about in whose possession medals should be. There are, essentially three rules of thought about medals and their ownership. The first is that they should remain in the family of the recipient regardless; that even if the current owner doesn’t want them in the fullness of time someone else from the family will so they should be kept in situ until that day comes. The second is that they should be kept in museums or similar, usually the museum of the Regiment in which the recipient served, perhaps a similar institution (the RAF Museum, the Imperial War Museum etc) or maybe in a related place – a memorial or such like. The third is the one most of us subscribe to – that medals can be in either of those two places it’s true but that often the private collection of an individual will see the medals treated with more respect, the memory of the recipient with more reverence, than ever they would be if the “gongs” were stuck in the drawer of a family member who had no interest in them or in the dusty archives of a museum that simply doesn’t have the space to display all they are donated. There are few medal collectors, I suspect, who wouldn’t give up parts of their collection to family members if we knew that they were searching – the ideal is always for the son, grandson, parent whatever to be in possession of the medals fought hard and long for - if they want them - but too often the family just can’t be doing with such things and I have known cases where the medals have been offered and rejected simply because the family had no interest in them at all – the recipient truly just “a photograph without even a name, faded to yellow in a brown leather frame”. In other cases, particularly with high level gallantry, the financial implications are often too much to ignore and few servicemen, I suspect, would be happier with their family hanging on to their medals rather than making a huge difference to their lives with some of the serious money that changes hands these days. But what of museums? Should they not have the medals as a constant reminder of the sacrifices made? Sadly the truth with museums is often they are overloaded with donations, don’t have the space to display everything and too frequently the medals given are just hidden away in the archives – a situation few recipients or their families would be entirely happy with I’m sure. Even when medals are on display you often find not the originals but replicas on view, the insurance risk being too great to have high value medals in easy reach of would be thieves – what I wonder is the point of that? After all anyone can cobble together “representative groups” and display them -, my belief has always been that if you view a VC group it should actually be the VC you see not a “museum quality replica” I can put a display of those together myself but I wouldn’t expect visitors to come and see them! So then we have the private collector – an individual who not only cherishes every item in his collection but, usually, does his utmost to keep the memory of the recipient alive through research etc. Sadly though that memory is usually confined to the one collector or maybe a few of his friends at a local club or society and as such maybe even the private collector isn’t doing all he (or she) should be. What then is the ideal scenario? Obviously a loving family who keeps Great-granddad’s memory alive with his photo and medals proudly displayed has to be favourite but that will never come about in every case. Clearly museum’s full of medals that will never be fully researched, or even see the light of day, or with replicas on display instead of the real McCoy isn’t right either and yet we collectors don’t usually have the wherewithal to do anything with our collections except what we already do – research them ourselves and share them with a few of our closest friends. Maybe then Lord Ashcroft represents the best option – a collector who clearly takes great pride in what he does and who has, we assume, taken great pleasure in his collecting and yet who now seeks not to hide that collection away or share it with a few but make it, and his knowledge, available for all to enjoy. There have been the inevitable criticisms over Lord Ashcroft’s buying habits over the years some saying the individual museums never stood a chance, others that the lure of money offered was simply too great for many families to keep the medals where they should be and still others bemoaning the fact that “ordinary collectors” (whoever they may be) were muscled out by the sheer buying power brought to bear. But now we learn what is to happen to the medals bought maybe those criticisms carry less weight – better this fate for over a tenth of the VCs ever awarded than to lie in a vault somewhere put there by a museum too scared to display the originals or by an investment company watching the pound signs tick over. So where should medals be? My opinion is that they should be with whoever cares about them most – and think that this may well be the case here, I hope so. Watch out for an exclusive interview with Lord Ashcroft coming soon in MEDAL NEWS

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