Military medals are bought and sold regularly in Canada and elsewhere and there are no rules against it. Is this practice wrong?
Author John Boileau of Halifax says NO. Author Glenn Wright of Ottawa says YES.
Boileau, a retired army colonel, has authored several books and numerous newspaper and magazine articles on Canadian military history. He is also a frequent radio and TV commentator on military issues. Wright is retired from the federal government where he worked as an archivist and historian with Library and Archives Canada, and the RCMP. He has also authored books on Canada’s wartime service.
Many people contend that selling military medals should be illegal. Unfortunately, some who believe this may not thoroughly understand the subject matter—or the total impracticality of what they suggest.
There is nothing wrong with selling medals.
Military medals on a soldier’s chest—more properly termed medals, orders and decorations—symbolize a number of events and tell a story. The most common denote participation in a peacekeeping/peacemaking mission, military campaign or war. Others represent long or distinguished service or, since October 2001, if the soldier was wounded. Others—the rarest of all—signify battlefield valour.
A law banning the sale of medals would be largely unenforceable. It would have no legal force outside Canada and would do nothing to prevent medal sales internally. Selling certain drugs is also illegal, and law enforcement agencies have been spectacularly unsuccessful in preventing this. There are thousands of medal collectors in this country. Countless medals are bought and sold daily, in full public scrutiny. Outlawing medal sales would simply move them underground.
For most of Canada’s wars, campaign medals awarded to our service personnel were not Canadian medals, but British ones. Millions of them were given to soldiers across the British Empire/Commonwealth. Beginning with the Second World War, campaign and war medals issued to Canadians are “unnamed”—not engraved with the recipient’s name—often making it impossible to tell who actually received them.
They have saved thousands of medals from being discarded, traced their provenance and carefully safeguarded them.
Similarly, peacekeeping/peacemaking medals awarded to Canadians by the United Nations, NATO, European Union and other organizations do not have the recipients’ names inscribed. Soldiers around the world wear them, and one cannot be distinguished from any other.
Contrary to what the general public believes, the vast majority of medals are not awarded for valour; they only indicate participation in a campaign or war. Take, for example, the First World War Victory Medal, of which more than 5.7 million were issued globally, including 351,289 to Canadians. This bronze medal was never issued alone, but always with the silver British War Medal. Many War Medals are no longer paired with their Victory Medal—usually for a very depressing reason. Several years ago, when the value of silver exceeded the collectors’ price for a War Medal, thousands of them were irretrievably lost. They were melted down for their silver value, but not by legitimate collectors.
Another criticism levelled against selling medals is that they rightfully belong in the soldier’s family, not with some collector. If people sell or give away any of their possessions—from a book to a car—their descendants no longer have any claim on that item. At some time either the individual or a family member started this chain by selling or giving away a medal—all perfectly legal. That ended the individual’s or anyone else’s—including relatives’—right to claim it at any time in the future.
The cost to the taxpayer of a law banning medal sales would be high. Dealers have invested millions of dollars in their stocks of medals. If selling them suddenly became illegal, these individuals would have a rightful claim against the government for reimbursement. Additionally, what would dealers and collectors be expected to do with their huge current holdings—trace the recipients’ families and give them back?
Much of our military history would have been irrevocably lost without medal dealers and collectors. They have saved thousands of medals from being discarded, traced their provenance and carefully safeguarded them.
Rather than criticize or try to stop those who deal in medals, we should be thanking them for continuing to preserve this important part of our military history.
There has always been a brisk market in military medals. Collectors pride themselves on the completeness of their collection and the extent of documentation on both the individual recipient and the events surrounding the award of the medal or medals. Gallantry awards are especially coveted. Collectors often add to the value of a medal by research and association not only with the recipient but with the particular circumstances of the award. Documented research means value-added which translates into increased prices in the marketplace. But we have to ask: for whose benefit?
War medals, be they service medals or honours and awards in recognition of exceptional service or bravery, are tangible evidence of one’s service to the country. They are unique to the individual recipients and are a tangible link between that man or woman and their very personal contribution to our military history. Medals place him or her in a time and place—be they a First World War Victory Medal, the Canadian Volunteer Service Medal from 1939-45, a Distinguished Flying Cross or any of the many honours awarded military personnel over the past 200 years. Every medal tells a story, every medal represents a man or woman who served our country when called upon to do so.
Preservation of the medals is another matter and is, admittedly, a challenge. Ideally, families themselves should preserve these very real connections to a serviceman or woman. In many cases, this is the only evidence one has to document that service. Medals may have a negative connotation for some families, if they serve as reminders of a lost loved one or of a young life cut short at Vimy or Ortona. But is this a reason to sell a set of medals?
My fervent hope is that a family member is interested enough to preserve these medals. If medals are not wanted by family, I would suggest they be donated, not sold, to a local or regimental museum, Legion Branch, archives or historical society.
For almost 20 years, I have walked the corridors of the Perley and Rideau Veterans’ Health Centre in Ottawa as a volunteer and I never tire of stopping by the individual display cases to look at the wartime photos, souvenirs and more often than not, the veterans’ medals. These men and women take great pride in their service experience; this is their legacy to us.
My fervent hope is that a family member is interested enough to preserve these medals. If medals are not wanted by family, I would suggest they be donated, not sold, to a local or regimental museum, Legion branch, archives or historical society. Older educational institutions, especially where the serviceman or woman attended, often house memorial plaques and other memorials to those who have served our country. Let us display medals in a similar fashion. This would ensure that the educational value of the medal is retained; it also secures the memory of the recipient. We often bemoan the fact that Canadian youth know little about our military heritage. War medals are one way to tell stories—experiences that hopefully will resonate with those who know little of our history.
With renewed interest in our military heritage from the War of 1812 to Afghanistan, and especially at a time of remembrance for those who served in the two world wars, medals should be treasured by families, relatives, communities and not sold to the highest bidder.
With these anniversaries of wartime upon us, the intrinsic value of war medals will undoubtedly increase to the detriment of those who earned the recognition in the first place. But let us focus on preserving these valued links to the men and women who earned them in service to our country. Let us not market these treasures for profit or gain.