World War II collectibles: Medals lead in popularity

World War II medals
US Purple Heart
U.S. Army Purple Heart with Oak Leaf cluster signifying an additional receipt of the award.
Distinguished Service Medal, U.S. Navy.
Distinguished Service Medal, U.S. Navy.
Women’s Army Corps Service Medal, second issue.
Women’s Army Corps Service Medal, second issue.
U.S. Army Bronze Star.
U.S. Army Bronze Star.
U.S. Army Distinguished Flying Cross, slot brooch, unnumbered.
U.S. Army Distinguished Flying Cross, slot brooch, unnumbered.

Medals are, by far, the most common military souvenir from World War II. All the participant nations minted and awarded medals in one form or another. After the war, medals came home with soldiers who received them as commendations or recognition, but also as war trophies. Three factors make medals a popular souvenir: medals are small, they are embodied with the mystique of “valor,” “bravery,” or “merit,” and they exude the aura of monetary worth (perhaps because of the similarity to coinage or the perceived “precious metal” content). These three factors are still at the heart of the popularity of medal collecting.

Medals seem to be a fairly sound investment. Prices have steadily increased over the years. Even the most common medals have held their value over the years and few, if any, have dropped in value.

Because medals are an attractive collecting area, the field has attracted its share of unscrupulous dealers. It takes little effort to swap a ribbon, grind away or add a hallmark, or simply clean and embellish a medal. Reproductions of many medals and awards emerged on the market even during World War II! It is an old, tired saying, but your best defense, should you decide to collect medals, is to arm yourself with as many good books as possible. Study examples in a reputable collection. Remember: The real story of any medal is usually found on the back. Turn it over, consider how it was meant to be worn and examine the minting quality. All of these can be signs of reproductions, forgery or simply spurious material.

Badge, medal, order or decoration: Which is the correct term?

Go to any military show in the United States or Great Britain, and you will hear the terms badge, medal, order, and decoration used interchangeably.

An “order” dates back to the days of knighthood. Generally, an order is associated with nobility or religious belief. Today, orders are generally conferred on citizens for some act performed during peace or war. It is not uncommon, however, to find military medal groupings that contain an order.

A “decoration” refers to an award other than an order. Decorations are presented to soldiers for some act of distinction against an enemy in combat. An example of a decoration would be the U.S. Silver Star or the United Kingdom’s Victoria Cross.

A term you probably won’t encounter in your collecting, but does come up in descriptions is “collar.” A collar is the highest class of some orders. A collar may often be a chain from which the order is suspended.

The most common term in the field—and the most encompassing—is medal. Properly, “medal” is used to describe any award that hangs from a ribbon. A medal will generally not be enamelled (a characteristic of an order). A medal will commemorate a range of activities such as campaigns, long service, good conduct, or commemoration, or significant dates such as independence or a ruler’s rise to power. Examples of medals include the United Kingdom’s 1939-45 Star, Germany’s Civil Service Honor Award, or the United States’ Victory Medal. “Medal” is the term most commonly used to refer to the entire field of orders, decorations, and medals. If you are going to use just one word, this is the one to choose. A more experienced collector will not consider it a gaffe if you casually refer to a Medal of Honor as a “medal” (more correctly, it should be called a “decoration”).

A badge is an outward symbol of a soldier having received a passing grade in a particular skill. Badges include parachute or pilot wings and marksmanship awards.

Collecting Hints


• Medals are extremely personal. A 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 of collecting that is both affordable and enjoyable.

• Display is not difficult. Hundreds of medals can be inexpensively and safely exhibited in a relatively small space.

• A wide variety of medals were produced, enabling collectors to choose an area in which to specialize.

• Medals are a sound investment.

• Items are small enough that shipping is not an obstacle, enabling a collector to buy from any source in the world.


• A lot of medals have been reproduced.

• Many medals contain metals that react to the environment and may require specialized storage and handling.

• 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.

• Advanced collections will cost thousands of dollars.

• It is easy to fake name and/or serial number engraving on a medal, so identified groupings must be regarded with a degree of skepticism.

Note: Under current U.S. law, it is illegal to sell, buy or transfer a Medal of Honor.

Personal items

Looking at a military dealer’s list or perusing the Internet often leaves the impression that personal items carried or used during the World War II abound and are available for minimal investment. That is only partially true.

This is a frustrating area to collect and, even more so, to describe. Many items were made or used from 1939 to 1945. That does not mean a soldier used the item or carried it in his knapsack. Many of the items that can be loosely placed in this category rely on imagination and little on documentation. Selling personal items, or “smalls,” is a profitable business. Simple utilitarian antiques can often be found for a few dollars at antiques shows or flea markets. With some wishful thinking and some clever writing, an average mid-20th century item can immediately become a soldier’s item. Unfortunately, this wishful thinking is infectious, and soon, plenty of customers believe the romantic yarns spun by a dealer.

Toothpaste in vintage containers, sweetheart jewelry, personal toiletry items, or vintage canned goods—a lot of antiques are currently being imported that look “period appropriate” and sold as “World War II” items. Again, it cannot be emphasized enough: Buyer Beware! If you are in the market for items that are typical of the period (or simply “look good”), then you will have no shortage of available artifacts to purchase.

On the other hand, if you stick with items that have a known provenance linking them to a soldier, or the period 1939 to 1945, be prepared to pay! Personal items that were actually carried or used by a soldier are harder to find and document—for the simple reason that they were used. The items were, by their very intent, expendable. Survival after 60 years was not the goal when these items were manufactured.

The best defense against the wishfully ordained, but woefully lacking in documentation “World War II” personal items is patience and study. Limit yourself to known entities—items with a strong provenance or documented period use.

Items that have a known association with a particular World War II soldier get the highest prices. Items not identified as belonging to one soldier are priced much lower. Resist the temptation to say or believe, “a soldier could have used it.” Just saying it doesn’t make it so. Visit museums, study books and period magazines to determine a sense of construction and use of items from the World War II era.

Personal items might seem—at first—the easiest area in which to begin collecting. It is, in fact, the most difficult. Because civilian-produced and used items followed no “regulation” pattern or order, the variety is endless. For example, consider the number of “toiletry kits” available on the market. It’s easy to say, “Sure! A soldier would have needed this to shave and keep clean in the field!” Yet very few have solid provenance linking them to a soldier.

To successfully collect in this area, you must first become familiar with the material culture of the mid-20th century. A lot of time and effort can be spent on studying decorative arts to hone the skill of recognizing a period-appropriate civilian ware. It is a lot easier to recognize an M1923 riflemen’s cartridge belt or an M1 carbine, than it is to determine whether a can of body powder or a toothbrush dates to World War II.

How much for that tank?

There is hardly a World War II buff alive who hasn’t at one time thought, “Gee, I would like to own a tank … I wonder how much one would cost?” It isn’t as crazy as what one’s neighbors might think!

In the United States, nearly 30,000 people call themselves “MV (military vehicle) enthusiasts.” The most common World War II vehicle to be restored is the most widely produced during the war—the Jeep. But, many also like to restore and drive larger vehicles ranging from 2 1/2-ton GMC trucks to Sherman tanks.

The largest club for MV enthusiasts is the Military Vehicle Preservation Association ( With 9,000 members worldwide, it serves as a connecting point for people who yearn to drive something in olive drab.

John F. Graf is the editor of Military Trader and Military Vehicles Magazine. He has written several books on collecting military collectibles.