Allenby at the gates
Volume 46, Number 1, December 2007
Method in our madness. APPEARING on eBay recently has been a new phenomenon—medal groups that are billed as “tributes”. They are not original groups, nor do they purport to be. What they are is made-up items, usually using original medals where possible (e.g. in the case of World War II stars) and copies where applicable (with high value gallantry specifically), all brought together as a replica of the original group as worn by a particularly well-known serviceman, be they decorated hero or war leader. The seller doesn’t claim that they are the recipient’s group and doesn’t claim anything to do with the recipient, but simply implies that they are a representation of what was awarded. Presumably potential buyers would purchase simply because they wanted such a group and purchasing the originals would be beyond their pockets, even if they were to come on the open market. A recent discussion on the internet British Medal Forum (www.britishmedalforum.com) brought a particular group to our attention—the VC, DSC group of nine to Canadian Lt Robert Gray—and we followed the ensuing discussion with some interest. On the whole the response of members of the BMF was as expected: the sort of response we would expect from most of our readers.. . that here was someone jumping on the bandwagon of medal collecting and in fact such a group as this really wasn’t worth even thinking about. This opinion was apparently backed up by bidders, as the eBay sale finished without the reserve being met. One contributor to the forum stated that he’d “rather have a WWI pair to a private or driver in one of the corps than a pile of fakes to represent medals won by a VC winner. I suppose that’s because I collect medals”, and that is, I imagine, something many of us would agree with. However, there is a problem with that—and it takes us back to the old question about what we collect and why. I have said many times in this Comment that we don’t just collect metal and silk, that in fact we collect the man behind the medal, the story and not the tangible relics of it. I have also said many times that we should not collect for investment and that if our collections go up in value then that is just a pleasant bonus to something we should enjoy anyway. If this is the case, then why don’t we all rush to buy tribute groups like those on offer on eBay and the like? Why don’t we add to our collections “made up” groups to represent high ranking officers in “our” regiments whose medals we know we could never afford? After all isn’t it the research that’s important? Isn’t it the story that’s the key thing, not the medals themselves...? Right now there will be many of you sitting reading this and disagreeing vehemently, insisting that the medals are the key to the whole thing, and so they are—but why? Medals themselves have no intrinsic worth, they are only really valued because of who they were awarded to, and why, and it is being able to prove who they were awarded to that makes named medals command so much more of a premium than unnamed ones, or makes paperwork so important with an unnamed group. But again I ask, if it is the recipient and the story of what he or she did that is the real value behind the awards, then why don’t made up groups that represent that story have the same kudos? After all, many museums have displays of “made up groups”, even when they don’t have the originals in their collections, and often when they do (particularly with VCs) it is still the copy that’s seen by the public. Is the story of the recipient diminished in any way because of that? Do you need the actual medals to tell the story? For example, if you took the aforementioned eBay group you could do all the research you wanted on the recipient, you would not need the originals would you? And in fact why have medals at all? Surely the records at the National Archives are ample to do research with aren’t they? Why bother going that far—aren’t the stories from the The War Illustrated enough? And if you collect to casualties, why bother paying the premium that their medals command when all you have to do is look up the name on the CWGC or the local war memorial and you can do your research that way? I’m playing Devil’s advocate of course. I don’t believe for one second that medals are irrelevant. We aren’t simply military historians, we are medal collectors who, as part of our hobby, research military history. For us, at least, the little bits of silk and metal are hugely important—no matter how we try and spin it, it isn’t JUST the man behind the medal that is important, but the medal itself. The fact that the recipient (or his next of kin) once held it, was presented with it, cherished it and polished it (heaven forbid!), is important. It isn’t just stories we collect, but the physical record of them. True, these things may not have intrinsic value in the same way as a gold coin does, but then so what? Does a Moorcroft vase or Wedgwood plate have intrinsic value? No, of course not, each is only worth what someone is prepared to pay for it, and what they are prepared to pay and why is very subjective. We as medal collectors are prepared to pay more for original medals given for service than for those made up to represent it; prepared to pay for the pleasure of bringing together broken groups; prepared to pay for the privilege of being this generation’s custodians of the past and prepared to pay to hold real history in our hands. Outsiders might see no rhyme nor reason to this, they may think us mad and so we may be—but there’s method in it and whilst we might not make sense to others we know exactly what we’re doing. At least I hope we do!
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