Volume 49, Number 3, March 2011
Medal not metal AS we go to press in the last weeks of February 2011 the “FTSE” is almost back at pre-credit crunch levels, hovering around the 6,000 mark and the commodities market continues to go from strength to strength, particularly for precious metals. Gold is being a little bit “jumpy” but is still ridiculously high, but as medal collectors it’s the price of silver that we should actually be watching. It currently stands at around US$30 or £19 an ounce and whilst you may consider that to be an indicator that people have money and therefore we’re all on the road to recovery, I’m afraid it isn’t as simple as that. Silver, which has actually gone up more than gold in percentage terms (surging by about 80% in 2010), is now at its highest since 1980 when the Hunt brothers tried to corner the World’s silver market. Now, admittedly, the highs of 30 years ago which saw the metal touch $50 an ounce are unlikely to be repeated (the circumstances are quite different and, if you factor in inflation and currency fluctuation, silver would actually need to be at about $135 an ounce to be comparable), but that doesn’t mean these new highs aren’t having some affect. If you are a coin collector you may well relish these developments—true it might make buying coins a little difficult but that inconvenience is likely to be offset by the knowledge that your collection is worth that little bit more, but for medal collectors it doesn’t work that way. Values of precious metal coin collections have always been linked to scrap values and whilst it is true that most “collectable coins” have a value separate from their “melt” price there is always a link and indeed certain coins can and do have a scrap value higher than their numismatic worth (think “standard” pre-1947 or pre 1920 coins—they have a lesser or greater amount of silver in them and in many cases their catalogue price is based solely on what they would fetch as scrap, numismatically they simply aren’t collected as coins that much but rather as lumps of metal. Medals of course are different. The thing about coins is that when you have a run of millions they really are all the same and only condition tells them apart; when you have a “run” of even millions of medals every one is very different, every one awarded to an individual and, whether named or not, they simply should not and must not be seen just as “lumps of metal”. Of course, we all know this. We collectors value medals not for their numismatic or aesthetic appeal per se (although they can be beautiful works of art in their own right there is no doubt about that) but rather for what they are representations of. As a rule we don’t care over much for their condition (although I do accept that some collectors will only buy the very best, but usually that is done within the framework of a collection not based solely on condition) and most importantly, apart from when it comes to storage and occasionally cleaning we don’t really care whether they are made of precious or base metal. Certainly we’ll always have opinions on the composition of medals, maybe preferring one substance to another and perhaps looking unfavourably at new strikings, etc., but I have yet to meet any medal collector who has put together his or her collection based solely on the metal the medals are made from. Were no medals made from silver at all, were they all struck from the basest of metals I think we would still collect—for most of us it is the story behind the medal that is the more important thing rather than the medal itself, regardless of the metal it was produced in. Unfortunately that isn’t the case for everyone. Increasingly nowadays we are seeing those who really should know better but don’t seem to, valuing medals (particularly the British War Medal) more for their silver content than their historic worth. There have been lots on internet auctions that actually show the medal on a set of scales proving its weight—these are lots that talk not of the man and the history but the metal. But what can be done? As collectors we know a British War Medal to a Private in a “standard” regiment is worth, in our market place, approximately £15–17, but now the silver makes them worth nearly £20 as scrap. Are we suddenly meant to start paying 30 per cent more for British War Medals to save them from the melting pot? Theoretically that would be the best scenario as ideally we, as dedicated collectors, would ensure that not a single man’s history was wiped away because of greed, not a single medal lost to the “pot”. But that is easier said than done. Most of us do not have limitless funds and we aren’t capable of buying up every medal we see, and that puts us in a difficult situation. If we don’t have the spare cash to buy whatever is on offer do we have to sit back and watch another generation of unknowing or uncaring scrap merchants destroy groups as they did in the 1970s? Well no, there is something we can do. We can do our best to educate those who would destroy part of our heritage for a few pounds. We can educate those who simply don’t know, explain to them that these disks are not coins and that once a medal is melted a part of history is lost forever. They might not listen, they might well simply carry on as before. But at least we will have tried and that, I think, is the least we collectors can do to preserve the memories and mementoes of those who have gone before.
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