Volume 59, Number 4, April 2021
All in the family THIS MONTH sees an announcement by C&T Auctioneers and Valuers Ltd that they will no longer accept for sale any post-1991 medals unless consigned by the recipients or recipient’s next of kin (see “News & Views”). Whilst this being made an official policy of an auctioneer is unusual, there is no doubt that every dealer and every auction house is always slightly wary when a modern medal comes through the door, unless it is in the possession of the person originally awarded it. The reasons for this hesitancy should be obvious—if the recipient themselves is selling then there’s no ambiguity, no reason to doubt that the sale is genuine, and no chance that there could be any trouble further down the line. Yes, the recipient may well regret selling their medals in the fullness of time and want to try to get them back, but if they were the ones who sold them on in the first place there’s not really much they can do, apart from to try to buy them back at market price. If the medals were once stolen though, well that’s another matter entirely and it is the fear of every collector that they are one day going to discover that they own stolen goods. If the worst does happen and you, as a collector, discover that the medals you hold are proved to be “hot”, there’s usually little you can do about it. If there was a crime committed and there is proof of such (with a crime reference number or similar documentation), then I am afraid you have no legal right to the medals, no matter from whom you purchased them. If you had bought them from a reputable dealer or auction house then they will usually apologise and refund you immediately, taking the monetary hit themselves (hence C&T’s policy now), but if you have purchased them privately, there’s often not much you can do; you can try to get your money back of course, but when the deal was done through a third party website or similar then the chances of tracking down who sold them to you in the first place are going to be slim. Even if there was no crime per se and the medals had been lost rather than stolen, you often will have no recourse, especially if there was any kind of insurance pay out, as in that case the medals officially belong to the insurance company! However, issues don’t only arise with medals being stolen. Often in that case everything is clear cut and you just have to walk away and cut your losses, but what happens when you find that whilst there was no crime, the ownership of the medals is still the subject of controversy? You might assume that if the recipient is no longer with us and it’s the next of kin selling his medals then all will be well, but will it? After all, if a widow is selling the medals, is she doing so with the knowledge of her late husband’s family? They may well legally be hers to sell but the last thing anyone needs is a bereaved mother or brother claiming that she should never have disposed of them—it just gets messy. Whilst an auction house or dealer will always establish provenance and legal ownership as a matter of course, that doesn’t stop emotions running high for those who disagree with exactly what the definition of “next of kin” should be. Naturally these emotions fade in time and whilst it is perfectly possible for a great grandson to feel aggrieved that his relative’s medals were sold out of the family, it is unlikely he will kick up too much of a fuss, but if one brother of a 21st century casualty sells the medals on without telling the other siblings? Well then cue a bitter family feud. Of course, such family politics are no business of the dealer or the auction house—all they have to do is establish the right of the consigner to sell, they don’t get involved in the ins and outs of families, but collectors can sometimes find themselves in the middle of what turn out to be very emotional disputes indeed. A collector in possession of medals legitimately sold and subsequently purchased has no legal obligation to return medals to the family no matter what the circumstances, but often the perceived moral obligation is strong and I have heard tales of collectors letting the family have the medals back at well below market value just because they felt they “should”—that’s fine until you see them back on eBay the next month (it happens!). Family politics and medals seldom mix well and so whilst C&T’s new policy makes sense for them from a legal perspective, it won’t, I fear, put an end to all disputes about ownership—many of which have nothing to do with the legal aspect of things at all! It will be interesting to see if C&T’s policy catches on with other dealers or auctioneers in the future; if it does it could change the “modern” market quite significantly. Watch this space.
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