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Volume 50, Number 1, January 2012
A medal conundrum EARLY in November it was announced that at long last the Pingat Jasa Malaysia Medal has been approved for British servicemen to wear—bringing them on equal terms with their Australian and New Zealand counterparts. This follows a long battle by, and on behalf of, veterans who were originally denied the right to wear the Malaysian Government’s award, as a British medal (or rather in this case a clasp on a British medal) covering the campaign in Malaya/Malaysia 1957–66 already existed. This is, of course, the second successful campaign by veterans with regard to medals. The first, by those who were campaigning for a medal to cover the Suez crisis 1951–54, met with success in 2003 when it was announced that the Canal Zone clasp would be instituted for the GSM. Other campaigns, for a Bomber Command medal, an Arctic Convoy medal, a National Service medal, a National Defence medal and others, have either met with no success at all or very limited success in the form of an official badge, with the “commemorative” medal companies filling the void. The purpose of this comment is not to question the legitimacy of such campaigns nor to critique the reasoning behind them, or wonder where they might end, but rather to ask another question—one more directly related to collectors than veterans. The question is simply this: if more and more medals are awarded retrospectively, or introduced by foreign governments years after the campaign and then given permission by our own for wear, where does that leave the status of the groups already in our collections? Take, for example, the theoretical case of a John who joined the army, as part of his National Service, and who fought in the Canal Zone. When his National Service time is up he then decides to stay on in the Army and is posted to Malaya. John leaves the Army with only a single medal—the GSM with Malaya clasp—and sadly passes away in 1999. He has no next of kin and his medal now rests proudly in one of our collections. Then take the example of his comrade in arms, Bill; he too goes through National Service, he too sees action in Suez and then signs on for the regulars alongside John with whom he is posted to Malaya. He too leaves the army with one medal and he and John would proudly go on wearing that medal at parades and regimental functions for many years, happy with what they had, even though both felt aggrieved that their Canal Zone service wasn’t recognised. Bill, however, is still with us. He was awarded a Canal Zone clasp to sit alongside his Malaya clasp back in 2004 and got his PJM a year later. He wore that medal proudly alongside his two clasp GSM on Remembrance Day this year. Who knows, if he is around for a few more years he may well see an official National Service medal too. When Bill passes away his medals will also go to a collector as he has no immediate family and is happy for someone other than a museum to have his gongs. So, you have two collectors, each with the correct representation of the same service but the two groups are very different. Where once the collector who owns John’s medals knew he had his sole entitlement, now things are very different; now that solitary GSM with its lone clasp begins to look more like a broken group. It isn’t, of course, but who could blame a collector for viewing it as such when it is sitting next to Bill’s two clasp GSM and his PJM (and maybe that third National Service medal too). Where once John’s and Bill’s medals would have fetched exactly the same at auction, now Bill’s group will undoubtedly fetch more despite the two men having been involved in exactly the same actions at the same time. What then, for the owner of John’s medal? Does he go out and buy himself a Canal Zone clasp to fit to the GSM? He has no right to as he’s not John’s next of kin, but John was entitled. What about a PJM to add to the group? If John was still around he would perhaps have done it himself but he’s not, so is the collector right in making up the group that way? It is one thing to add a Jubilee medal or even a decoration that is missing from a group but which it is known the recipient once owned, but quite another to add medals/clasps which the original wearer of the medal would never have seen, and yet the temptation to do so is obvious. There is no immediate correlation between the example given and medals we are all familiar with (the 1914 Star and its related clasp is the nearest comparison to be made but doesn’t fit exactly), but I feel it is something we collectors need to consider for the future. If there are going to be a raft of retrospective awards, be they British or foreign, where then does that leave the groups we as collectors own but which do not contain these “new” medals? Are such groups, as awarded originally, going to be considered “broken”? If the groups with new medals added are considered more collectable than those without, does it matter who added those awards? Are those that contain the new medals perhaps only going to be considered legitimate if the latter awards were added, and worn, by the recipient themselves? What if the next of kin added them because they knew their relative would have wanted it as such? Are they any less legitimate because they are “second generation”? If they are considered OK, then what if a collector adds them? In the face of numerous medal campaigns, and thus potentially numerous new awards, these questions are ones we collectors should consider. Veterans of course will have no such concerns. They are only interested in what they see as justice, interested in winning their campaign—emphasising once again that whilst we may love this fascinating hobby, the medals we collect were not instituted with us collectors in mind but rather for the soldiers, sailors and air crew who were, and are, awarded them. We’d do well to remember that little fact more often.
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