Awards to a Polar legend
Volume 53, Number 9, October 2015
Split ends THE proposed sale of renowned Polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton’s medals at Christie’s this coming month (October 8—see News and Views page 6) has got the medal world in something of a spin. The medals that Shackleton was entitled to would make an impressive display were they all to be brought together but unfortunately that looks unlikely to happen—as just 15 from his total of 40 medals are being offered in October and the most important one of all as far as many people are concerned, the Polar Medal, isn’t being offered at all. What the reason actually is for selling the Royal Victorian Order, OBE and World War I pair separately from the foreign orders awarded to Shackleton and his Royal Geographical Society medals can only be surmised. It is our guess that either the vendor or the auction house believes that separate lots will fetch more money than one large lot and thus the medals appear individually (apart from the British group outlined above which is offered together—so no split on the World War I pair at least!) but it is equally possible that as the Polar Medal isn’t up for sale then the group is considered split anyway and so breaking it down further is not seen as an issue. Certainly the fact that these wonderful pieces of history are being offered separately means that, potentially, more than one person can own a piece of Shackleton’s story and as the Polar Medal isn’t there does it actually matter if the rest of the medals aren’t kept as one group? The issue of “splitting” is a thorny one for us collectors; we would all, I am sure, prefer to have a complete group than own just a part of one—but why? Ask almost any collector and they will say that the man behind the medal, the story of the award is more important than the metal and silk and yet how often do we make a mockery of that by refusing to touch a “broken” group no matter how fascinating the story behind it? We must remember that the splitting of groups—giving or leaving one medal to your wife or widow, another to your son, a third to your daughter, etc., always used to be considered normal and acceptable behaviour and it is only since medal collecting came into vogue and we strange collectors got involved that having a complete group was the most important thing. The moment I heard about Shackleton’s group being “split” I was horrified, I felt that such an important piece of Polar exploration history should be left intact, but then I asked myself why I felt like that—is it not better that as many individuals/museums as possible get to have a piece of the story so that that it may be shared with so many more than if just one museum purchased the whole group? Perhaps, but still my instinct says no, but then aren’t I just a product of the modern hobby, singing from that particular hymn sheet because I have been conditioned to think that way? I don’t know. Certainly the need to keep a group together even at the expense of others who may want to share in it isn’t something our Victorian or indeed World War I era ancestors would have necessarily understood, and I cannot help but think much of that attitude today is based around the monetary value of the complete group versus the value of its parts rather than the oft vaunted pretence of the “story”. After all the story is the same whether you have one of a man’s medals or his full entitlement so why do you need everything—isn’t “sharing” the story better? Now please don’t misunderstand, I am as keen as the next man to see medals kept together but I’m not entirely sure why—certainly I am less than comfortable to see a split where it is obvious the vendor is simply trying to maximise his revenue (as so often happens on-line these days) but in this case—where only very few people/institutions would be able to afford the complete Shackleton group (and it isn’t complete anyway) does it actually matter if the rest of it is broken up? I really don’t know—I’m in just as much of a spin as everyone else!
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