The collecting of medals remains, quite probably, the most popular segment of militaria.
Three factors have influenced medal collecting from the beginning and remain the primary reasons for medal devotees to continue being committed to their passion. Medals are given for valor, bravery, and merit. They are small and take up relatively little space. Their appeal seems partially due to their luster and the aura of monetary value. Perhaps this is due to their similarity to coinage or possible precious metal content.
Every country involved in World War II awarded medals to its fighting personnel, and many awarded them to the soldiers of other nations as well. Medals are common, given to soldiers as tangible mementoes of their service. They came home with veterans, both the victorious and the defeated, worn on their uniforms or stuffed into their gear. Others have been passed down through families for three or four generations since the end of the war and have begun to surface at estate sales, flea markets, and just about anywhere reminders of the war may be found.
Medals have, for the most part, held their values. Prices have steadily increased through the years as collectors have snapped up these highly prized collectibles. Obtaining medals of the Third Reich has become a greater challenge, while the popularity of medals from the Great Patriotic War, worn on the tunics of Soviet service personnel, has surged upward. Both the scarce and the relatively common medals of World War II have consistently held their value or appreciated in recent years. Few have lost any of their value.
One pronounced pitfall in medal collecting relates to the abundance of copies, restrikes, replicas, and otherwise altered or counterfeit items. Unscrupulous dealers have surfaced from time to time and taken advantage of the unwary purchaser. After all, very little creativity or effort is required to change a ribbon, add or grind a hallmark away, clean, or otherwise embellish a medal. Even as World War II was underway, reproductions were emerging. Therefore, a word to the wise … read books on the topic of medal collecting. Study examples in a reputable collection. Learn the subtleties of the pastime.
Badge, Medal, Order or Decoration: Which is the Correct Term?
For the general collector of militaria, these terms are used almost interchangeably. The banter at any military show in the United States or Great Britain abounds with them, seldom in relation to specific awards. Professional dealers and diehard collectors are keenly aware of the difference between a badge, medal, order, or decoration, and learning the correct terminology will provide the purchaser with an edge in discussions with a dealer. Quite literally, the dealer’s perception of the buyer can relate to real differences in pricing. Those less knowledgeable or skilled may indeed pay a higher price for the item being discussed.
The most common term the collector refers to or may hear from others is “medal.” The proper definition of the word “medal” is any award, which hangs from a ribbon. A medal generally is not enameled, which is often a characteristic of an order. Medals are commemorative of a variety of events, such as good conduct, campaigns, long service, commemorations, or important historical dates such as the independence of a nation or the ascension of a monarch to the throne. When commonly referring to the entire genre of medals, badges, orders, and decorations, using the word “medal” is often the most correct option. In most cases, an experienced collector or dealer will not consider it an error if someone refers to the Medal of Honor as a medal, although it is more correctly a decoration. However, in contrast, referring to an item, which is obviously a medal with the incorrect designation, could elicit a long pause or correction from another individual. In situations where there is any doubt, referring to medals, decorations, orders, and badges as medals is the best course of action. For the purposes of this price guide, the term “medal” is used interchangeably with “order” and “decoration.”
An order may date back centuries, even to the days of knighthood. Orders are usually associated with religious institutions or the nobility. Modern orders are generally conferred upon citizens for performing an act of service either during war or peace. However, some medal groupings involving military service do contain one or more orders.
A decoration is a more general term, referring to an award, which is not connected to an order. More specifically, a decoration is presented to a soldier for an act of heroism or distinction under fire or against an enemy in a combat situation. Such decorations would include the U.S. Silver Star, German Iron Cross, I Class, or the United Kingdom’s Victoria Cross.
|This exclusive excerpt is from the newly expanded second edition of Warman’s World War II Collectibles, Identification and Price Guide, by Michael Haskew (Krause Publications, 2010). Learn more about ordering a copy of this important guide at shop.collect.com.|
Uniform Collecting Hints
One lesser-known term involving medals is “collar.” While the term does surface from time to time, it refers to the highest class of some orders and may also denote the chain from which an order is suspended.
Badges signify a soldier’s proficiency or having received a “passing grade” in a particular skill and are not covered in this chapter. Badges may be awarded for marksmanship or perhaps the completion of pilot or parachute training. Medal collectors, however, use the word “badge” to describe an order, which hangs from a ribbon. Confusing enough? Those who concentrate solely on medals, though, will not often find themselves interacting with general militaria collectors or dealers on a regular basis. Therefore, in this book, the term “badge” will usually denote a medal which is most often pinned directly to the holder’s uniform without a ribbon.
Named, Named, Named
What’s in a name? When it comes to collecting militaria — plenty! If the three most important elements in the value of a piece of real estate are location, location, location, then the name of the individual who owned, received, or used an item is equally important in militaria collecting. Further, this is true more so in medal collecting than any other facet of the endeavor.
Consistently, the highest prices are paid for those medals, which are directly and conclusively linked to the soldiers who originally received them. In many cases, medals were inscribed with serial numbers or the names of recipients, allowing the collector to validate or discover the story behind the award. For many collectors, learning the role the soldier played, his contribution, and the chain of events, which led to the medal being awarded, adds to the pleasure of owning the item. Collectors will pay top prices for the opportunity to do the detective work themselves as well.
Another level of “value added” pricing relates to medals that are accompanied by their original citation or other document linking the award itself to the recipient. However, such a link may at times be more difficult to establish. One excellent example of such difficulty deals with the approximately 7,500 awards of the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross during World War II. None of the medals themselves were engraved with the name of the recipient or any other identifying mark, which could potentially tie it to an individual. Therefore, proving that a specific Knight’s Cross belonged to a certain soldier is truly a daunting task. Obviously, when the original document which names the recipient is present with the Knight’s Cross, the value increases by hundreds, possibly thousands of dollars. Otherwise, a dealer’s only options for determining a value are the condition of the piece and the maker’s mark.
Still, in the case of the Knight’s Cross, there is virtually no certainty that a particular award document relates to the specific medal. The purchaser must rely on instinct and the trustworthiness of the dealer. ?
NOTE: Under current U.S. law, it is illegal to sell, buy or transfer a Medal of Honor.
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The image of the soldier of World War II, whether Allied or Axis, is perhaps captured more fully in no other way than in the uniform he or she wore during their service experience. While the uniform is quite probably the most personal item a soldier possessed, it also became a difficult souvenir for one to bring home. The bulk of field and dress uniforms often took up a considerable amount of space in comparison to various other items such as medals, documents, flatware, or a photograph. Further, the uniform of an enemy soldier, his headcover, tunic, and trousers were so often considered too personal to stuff into a rucksack.
For many soldiers, particularly those of the defeated Axis, the uniform was the principal item, or the only possession, they were allowed to keep when they returned to civilian life. The heavy clothing was often prized for use in everyday situations, even in earning a living through manual labor. Surplus and used clothing stores purchased uniforms in large numbers, reselling them as work clothes or possibly to the occasional collector. As a personal item, the uniform was very often the most tangible reminder of a soldier’s service in World War II and an obvious connection to the war for the collector.
Today’s collectors find uniforms compelling and extremely desirable. They may wish to consider the challenges of storage, display, and price range as they begin collecting uniforms or add to an existing collection. The focus may include assembling the full dress of a German soldier, purchasing an M36 combat tunic and following that with additional pieces, eventually displaying them on a mannequin in order to gain an appreciation for the look of a soldier on garrison duty or in the field.
Uniforms: Dress or Fatigue?
Divided into two major categories, dress and fatigue, the uniforms of World War II tend to be much more elaborate when fashioned for official functions. The dress uniform included rank and unit insignia and often, formal awards, while the fatigues were put to the test in the field with such personnel as mechanics, cooks, support troops, and combat soldiers.
Dress uniforms were often worn home from overseas, placed in a closet, and seldom seen in subsequent years. However, as the soldiers of World War II pass away and estates are sold at auction, dispersed to family members, or boxed up and given away, dress uniforms remain in great supply. One of the most significant factors in determining the value of a dress uniform is the insignia, which it bears. Values of a few dollars to hundreds of dollars may be determined by the adornments of a British Service Dress uniform, the Class A jacket of a U.S. Army Air Corps officer, or the Waffenrock of a German soldier. Research is a prerequisite to determining which insignia, patches, and medals are the most desirable and enhance the value of a uniform to the highest degree.
In contrast, the value of a fatigue uniform is primarily determined by its function. The combat clothing of a common soldier, such as a U.S. issue rain jacket, does not elicit the high level of interest of an SS soldier’s camouflage smock. In addition, the U.S. first pattern winter parka may be more “scarce” than the U.S. pattern 1941 field jacket since fewer were made; however, the latter remains the more desirable, and therefore more valuable, item. The reason is readily apparent. The field jacket is representative of the GI in combat. The field jacket was part and parcel with nearly every American soldier in harm’s way. Therefore, the items worn by soldiers in combat will generally command a higher price than others.
Don’t Tear Off the Tag
The tag, very often, tells the tale. The importance of retaining the tags cannot be stressed enough. Collectors, particularly those interested in U.S. uniforms, will pay a premium for uniforms with full, legible tags. These often provide a wealth of information, including the contract under which the article of clothing was made, the date of the contract, its official nomenclature, and the size. Routinely, some garment owners purchased tags privately and had them sewn into a tunic or other article of clothing. Today, such evidence of ownership adds to the provenance of an item.
Sometimes soldiers simply wrote their names or other identifying information inside their uniforms, including serial number or address. While these may provide clues to the ownership of a garment, they may, in some cases, augment the value. Do not attempt to remove any of these markings. Such alterations are very likely to detract from values. ?
• Uniforms are probably the most tangible evidence of a soldier’s service, conveying personal commitment.
• Available in good supply, uniforms may be purchased in a variety of styles and price ranges.
• Although some uniforms are quite rare, the majority are easy to find and may often be linked with provenance.
• Uniforms take up a great deal of space and need plenty of room for assembly and display.
• Uniform collectors must accept responsibility for the special care in preservation and handling that is required.
• Insignia may be original to the uniform or added later, which may be quite difficult to determine, particularly if applied to the garment after 1945 in order to artificially inflate value.
• Reproductions of combat clothing are readily available.
Following the end of World War II, many of the trappings of the ordinary soldier were sold as surplus materials and were used in the pursuit of hobbies or civilian work. Some of these are still in use today, while re-enacting has gained a new popularity worldwide. Although the demand for the common accouterments of the soldier has caused prices to rise through the years and given support to an active reproduction market, many examples of original equipment are available at affordable prices. Yet, assembling the entire kit of a World War II soldier, male or female, may be a challenging and somewhat expensive task.
The most sought after and difficult to find accouterments are those, which were used by elite troops, such as paratroopers, commandos, and SS soldiers. Some caution should be exercised particularly when purchasing items identified as belonging to elite troops, as well as rare items, such as gas detection brassards or special paratrooper first-aid pouches.
The allure of collecting accouterments stems primarily from the connection to the soldiers themselves. These were, after all, the tools of the soldier’s trade—the very trappings that he or she wore on campaign, in battle, on the drill field, and finally, the souvenirs to remind the veteran of their time in combat. Remember, however, that all accouterments have not survived the decades at the same rate, and some are scarce. Leather and metal items are prone to flaking, deterioration, or rust and must be handled with special care.
Many soldiers returning home from their military duties were allowed to keep some or all of their field gear, and the occasional pair of wire cutters, pouch or haversack, government issue shovel, or web belt routinely turns up in an attic chest or may be purchased at the local flea market or estate sale. Due to the abundance of material available, some collectors opt to concentrate on one type of accouterment, possibly attempting to gather all variations of a certain maker’s mark. Others, however, may concentrate on assembling the entire complement of items typically carried by a certain soldier of a certain nation. In either case, the connection to the common individual in the service of his or her country is readily apparent. The accouterment collector benefits from the availability of items, which survived World War II and may engage in the satisfying hobby for years to come. ?
Accoutrements Collecting Hints
• Fakes of common items are not as prevalent as in other collectibles.
• Due to the volume of equipment produced, there are numerous manufacturers and a wide variety of most accouterments.
• Accouterments, by their very nature, have a personal feel. By collecting the complete trappings of a soldier, a collector can develop a keen sense of a typical World War II soldier’s burden.
• Leather and metal accouterments can be hard to store properly. Leather requires special treatment and is prone to flaking and dryness. Ideally, it is stored in a slightly humid environment. Metal items, especially tin-dipped iron such as canteens, are prone to rust and must be kept dry.
• Different types of accouterments survived at disproportionate rates. For example, U.S. cartridge belts have survived by the hundreds of thousands, but very few U.S. paratrooper first aid pouches have survived. Therefore, assembling a complete soldier’s kit is costly, especially if one is depicting an elite soldier such as a paratrooper or British Commando.
• Because the bulk of accouterments have entered the market through surplus channels, very few items have a known provenance. This can give accouterments a bland feel since they do not have the same sort of associated war stories as a soldier’s uniform with all of his medals displayed.
One of the most popular, focused areas of World War II collectibles is that of headgear. Whether German helmets, fatigue “boonie” hats, or dress visor caps, nothing seems to connect with collectors more than a soldier’s head covering.
Headgear collectors can be divided into three groups: helmet collectors, visor cap collectors, and a mixture of the two. The first group, helmet collectors, comprises the majority of headgear enthusiasts.
One of the most sought-after souvenirs between British Tommies and American GI, after German Luger pistols, was the German helmet. Images of jackboots and the steel-curtained helmets of German soldiers permeated newsreels, magazines, and newspapers beginning in 1934. Prior to World War II, boys, who would later serve as the soldiers in the next global conflict, played with the helmets their fathers, brothers, and uncles brought home as souvenirs of the Great War. Given the easily recognizable coal-scuttle shape, it was no wonder that soldiers in World War II clamored to bring home the Teutonic helmets.
Only during the last few years, however, have helmets of other participant nations gained popularity. The steadily increasing prices of German helmets have directed many collectors to consider the headgear of Allied and Axis nations. Helmets of Japan, Bulgaria, and eastern European nations have all gained value in recent years.
Though German helmet prices have steadily increased since World War II, the prices of U.S. helmets have seen a meteoric rise. Surplus stocks of American M1 helmets kept prices low for years following the end of World War II. As collectors sifted through the piles of surplus helmets to find the rare examples with some sort of camouflage or painted insignia, however, hobbyists began to take notice of GI helmets.
The key to the value of any helmet is twofold: relative rarity and markings. An unmarked Model 36 Soviet helmet is rare because so few survived the war, having often been replaced by the Model 39 and Model 40. On the other hand, an American M1 helmet with a chinstrap on non-swiveling loops is relatively common.
Complete with liner, such a helmet will sell for $100-$175 (in 1999, it was not uncommon to find one for $20). However, the same helmet with the small, painted insignia of the 2nd Infantry Division will increase value to $800-$1,000. Why? Because very few U.S. helmets boasted any sort of insignia, and those featuring such marks usually received a layer of paint when they were reissued during or after the war.
This phenomenon is not limited to U.S. helmets. It did not take long for collectors to realize that the value of a German helmet was not in the “shell” but rather the markings on the shell.
Values based on markings, however, have led to a serious pitfall within the hobby. No single item can be used to determine authenticity except the helmet itself.
Headgear Collecting Hints
• Headgear is extremely personal. The collector can determine some of a soldier’s history from a single piece.
• Supply is plentiful. It is easy for a collector to find a level that is both affordable and enjoyable.
• Display is not difficult. A few shelves and hat stands will allow a collector to adequately and safely exhibit their items.
• Items are small enough that shipping is not a big issue, enabling a collector to buy from any source in the world.
• In the arena of helmets, fakes abound. If a helmet displays any sort of decal or painted insignia, it is best to approach it with suspicion.
• Helmets are prone to changes in humidity. Rust is the biggest threat to a helmet collection.
• It is easy to get carried away and acquire more than one can enjoy or even afford. Supply is high, so a collector needs to exercise discipline and purchase wisely rather than wildly.
• If you decide to collect either helmets or visor caps, rare examples are going to run into the thousands of dollars.
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• World War II collectibles: Medals lead in popularity
• American Pickers: Saving Antiques One at a Time
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