None but the brave
John Millensted bounces down the steps of Bonhams in Knightsbridge, London, and shakes hands briskly. The auction company’s medals expert was busy putting the final touches to a December 16 auction of coins and military decorations dating back to the Battle of Waterloo which netted £330,951 ($531,800).
Bonhams also generated £350,000 in an October auction, and such results underscore the global demand for antique medals, a niche collectables market that attracts a loyal and passionate following, with prices that have been rising across the market for years.
When Millensted started at Bonhams in 1994, a basic first world war medal group sold for £20; today, they routinely retail for £80-£90. The upper end of the market has proved particularly recession-proof. In a November 19 auction at Spink, the specialist London auction house founded in 1666, a Victoria Cross (VC) awarded in 1943 to Flight Lieutenant Bill Reid sold for a world record £348,000.
Spink raised £823,000 from that sale, which included a Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) for gallantry that went for £120,000; its November 2008 auction brought in £650,000. Oliver Pepys, Spink’s chief medals expert, reckons the UK market to be worth £20m a year, a five-fold increase in two decades, with global sales estimated at £150m in 2008.
Many buyers are investors rather than collectors, seeing medals valued at around £5,000 as a good hedge against the poor global business climate. Yet the bulk of demand is driven by an array of wealthy, cosmopolitan characters such as Andrey Khazin, a 40-year-old businessman and member of the Council of Federation of the Federal Assembly, Russia’s Senate, whose office on Moscow’s Prechistenka Avenue is crammed with one of the world’s great collections of medals and orders.
After serving me tea from an antique Victorian trolley, Khazin runs through his collection with almost schoolboy eagerness. He claims to have around 580 full orders, many in storage (Khazin would like to keep more of his collection at home, but says his wife “won’t have any of that old trash in her house”). One ancient wooden drawer opens onto Insignias of the Order of the Thistle; another reveals a row of medals handed to Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich, named in 1917 as the heir to Nicholas II, the last Tsar of Russia. But the crown jewel in Khazin’s collection is the dazzling £100,000 “Great George”, a pendant worn on the collar of the Order of the Garter, the most prized British order of all.
This Great George – depicting St George and the Dragon, and one of only 30 known to exist – was awarded to Henry Grey, 1st Duke of Kent, in 1712. The item is unique because at that time European nobles would “bling up” their decorations, adding diamonds, gold and rubies.
Khazin professes to collect British medals due to a love of the national character, and an uninterrupted, 650-year-old award system. When it comes to Imperial Russian medals of the 18th and 19th centuries, Bonhams’ Millensted says the market “exploded” in 2006 and 2007: an obscure Russian first world war medal bought for £25 in a London charity shop went at auction in 2007 for £5,000. “It was insane,” says Millensted. “I put the estimate in at £200.” Recently however, the credit crisis has dented Russian wealth, and therefore demand and prices.
No two collectors are the same. Robert Gottlieb, a prominent New York-based literary agent and publisher, is one of America’s leading collectors of Russian medals. Lord Ashcroft, a Conservative peer who divides his time between Britain and Belize, bought his first VC at a London auction in 1988, and now owns 160 of the 1,351 VCs awarded since 1856, the largest single collection anywhere.
This entire collection will go on display next autumn in London’s Imperial War Museum. Star of the show will be the VC awarded to Colonel John Chard for bravery in the 1879 defence of Rorke’s Drift. “For me, it’s not about investing, it’s about collecting,” Ashcroft said. “It’s an admiration for what man can do under extraordinary pressure.”
Market value is, as ever, in the eye of the beholder. Availability is one variable: 10,000 DCMs were handed out in the First World War, but those awarded to British soldiers during the Dhofar Rebellion of 1962-1975 – including the one sold in Spink’s November auction – can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Another is certification – prior to 1914 medals came with paperwork identifying the recipient by name and rank, making awards easy to authenticate.
Medals are also tightly woven into a nation’s collective identity. Sydney-based Noble Numismatics specialises in awards to Antipodean soldiers, coveted by Australian and New Zealand collectors. German as well as Russian collectors value Nazi memorabilia, as sold at the Munich auction house, Hermann Historica.
But most of all, a medal needs a human tale, and a place in history, to give it value. For Russian collectors of Nazi mementos, it may evoke the bravery of a nation protecting the city of Stalingrad against German attack. For buyers of British medals, it may mean moments of valour during, say, the Crimean War. A classic example is the group of medals of Wing Commander “Bunny” Currant, a Battle of Britain pilot whose medals, sold in 2007 for £90,000, were highly valued in part because his heroics were woven into a 1942 film, The First of the Few, starring David Niven.
Few experts see prices falling. Noble has one medals auction slated for 2010, Spink has three, and Bonhams four – the latter including a set of first world war medals expected to fetch £200,000. “The market will continue to improve,” says Millensted. “You need to be careful where you invest, but it’s a good, solid bet. And there is a finite supply. Let’s face it: there won’t be any more Battle of Waterloo medals.”
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