Great War medals prove a great investment for militaria collectors

It's hard to believe, but July 2010 represents the 96 year anniversary of the slow build up of hostilities that came to be the First World War. With growing tensions and ultimatums on either side, July 26th saw the Austro-Hungarian Empire reject the demands of Serbia and war soon followed.

The conflict would shape much of the twentieth century, and it is a testament to those that died that the medals relating to the conflict are some of the most valuable and sought after military collectibles of today.

The British War Medal only
110,000 were produced
during the war

Following the death of Harry Patch, the last living soldier to have fought in the trenches, the demand for First World War medals has intensified even further, as collectors are beginning to look at investing in a militaria market that offers limited supply alongside high demand.

In December 2008, the medals of Captain Siegfried Sassoon, one of the most famous soldiers of the conflict, came up for sale at Sotheby's in London.

Sassoon made his name during the conflict, as a poet who wrote about the horrors of trench warfare, notably in satirical classics like "Does it Matter?" Today, his work remains the cornerstone of the war poetry genre.

The collection of medals included: the most excellent order of the British Empire, a 1914-15 Star, a British War medal and a 1918 Victory medal.

It sold for £4,375 ($6,750) to a private bidder. With the high number of war poets, engaged in the conflict there remans potential for investing in similar pieces.

Royal Air Force medals have also impressed at auction in recent years. Wellington's auctioneers offered online bidders the chance to purchase one such collection featuring the rare "Distinguished Flying Cross" from the First World War.

During the conflict, flying was considered so hazardous, that pilots were given a life expectancy of just 17.5 hours in the air.

The Mercantile Marine War Medal

The medals were awarded to a Lancashire pilot called Captain J C Dickson, who had flown over the Balkans and Russia during a two year stint in the air from, 1917-1919.

His collection included the Distinguished Flying Cross, a 1914-15 Star, a British War medal, Victory medal and Defence medal which were available with an estimated price of £3,750 ($5,785).

Medals from the Navy can also prove a wise investment. 

In 2001, Christies in London sold a collection of medals awarded to Lewis Raphael Rickinson. The September sale featured pieces relating to his time in the Navy during the war.

The lot included a British war medal 1914-18, a rare Mercantile Marine War Medal 1914-18 and a Victory Medal 1914-1919.

Coming directly from his estate, the collection had an auction estimate of £4,000 attached, but sold for £11,163 ($16,300).

Yet the rarest and most sought after First World War medal on the market is undoubtedly the Victoria Cross.

First introduced by Queen Victoria in January 1856, the medal has since been awarded just 1,356 times.

Following the Second World War, the medal has only been awarded 13 times, with 9 to British Army soldiers and 4 to Australian.

With the Victoria Cross awarded to British and Australian soldiers who represented the commonwealth, interest in the piece is also widespread.

A Christie's auction in Melbourne in December 2009 saw the sale of  a collection of medals which included a Victoria Cross awarded to Australian soldier George Mawby Ingram during the First World War trench conflict.

The military award reached £271,539 (AUD$468,000) at the auction off an estimate of £230,000.

The demand for Victoria Crosses has also been heightened by the existence of wealthy private collectors. Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party and billionaire Lord Ashcroft is the most prominent collector, with a personal set of 162 different VCs.

Yet he is not alone.

In July 2006, Bonham's in Sydney saw a world record price for a Victoria Cross awarded to Captain Alfred Shout. Having been awarded the medal posthumously in 1915 after his efforts in the trenches of Gallipoli in Turkey, the auction saw the VC medal reach $1,000,000 Australian dollars (approximately £410,000 at the then exchange rates.)

The WWI Victoria Cross

The buyer was Australian media magnet and medal collector, Kerry Stokes, who donated the piece to the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.

And it was Lord Ashcroft who set the latest world record price, for what is one of the rarest Victoria Crosses of them all.

In November last year, he purchased the highest gallantry medal for members of the British Commonwealth and armed forces, a double Victoria Cross.

The piece was all the more unique given that it was the only one of its kind awarded during the First World War and only one of three awarded to date, in this instance awarded to Noel Godfrey Chavasse.

The double VC was made from the priceless metal of two Chinese made bronze cannons sorted in Woolwich and featured an extra bar, unlike standard VCs, in recognition of its double award.

It sold for nearly £1,500,000 ($2.3m), 50% higher than the previous world record price for a medal.

Lord Ashcroft's Victoria Crosses collection currently reside in the Imperial War Museum in London.

Later this year, it will open as part of a new gallery in Ashcroft's name, which will display his collection, alongside the museum's current set of medals, which includes 50 Victoria crosses.

Museums and institutions currently account for the majority of Victoria crosses. With fewer and fewer Victoria Crosses in the hands of private collectors, the value of VCs is expected to rise as more collectors enter the market.

Indeed, over the course of the last twenty years, the value of medals like the Victoria Cross has increased by nearly 390%.

Oliver Pepys, a medal specialist at Spink Auctions in Bloomsbury, London, is highly optimistic about the future of the market:

"The medal market is buoyant and there are still plenty of bargains out there"

Furthermore, four years from now will see the centenary of the Great War. This event could have the potential to push prices up even further, as demand for these pieces intensifies, due to the increasingly limited amount on the market.

As time goes on, medals from the Great War may well prove to be an equally great investment.



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