The Operational Service Medal

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Continuing our series on the different types of UK medals, this week we have a campaign medal. These denote participation in specific military operations since the early 19th century but this particular example is for action in Afghanistan since 2001. Its forerunner would have been The Afghanistan Medal of 1878-1880.

The changing nature of warfare has seen a marked increase in the role and significance of support services, some of them civilians. This campaign was the first time that a different version of the medal was struck for combat personnel – shown here with plastic presentation box.

The recipient’s name is shown on the edge of the medal. Since 2005 machine lasers have been used to do this so, regrettably, it’s important to be on the lookout for forgeries.

This is not a military medal

This is the Military Medal. It comes under the category of a decoration, a medal awarded to an individual “for acts of gallantry and devotion to duty under fire”. The Military Medal was restricted to bravery shown in land battles although members of the navy and air force who found themselves contributing in these unusual circumstances were also eligible. Recipients included women from 1916 onwards and anyone so decorated can add MM after their name. Chris Ryan and Andy McNab generally don’t though.

In one episode of Dad’s Army the platoon fell out with Private Godfrey when he revealed that he was a conscientious objector. When it later emerged that he had won the Military Medal for his bravery as a stretcher bearer he was feted as the unit’s most decorated member.

Usually, anyone in receipt of this award would also have earned other medals. Sadly, many families who fell on hard times in the 1920’s had to sell it simply for the weight of silver it contained. For this reason, single Military Medals usually start in the £250 – £450 bracket. Values double if the medal is complemented by the soldier’s full entitlement group. Military Medals awarded to support corps personnel are usually worth less – not because of any slight on their contribution, simply because many more people worked in that role.

Medal Collecting 101

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Interested in medals but don’t know where to start? Here are ten tips to help you earn your stripes:

  1. As with stamps, or currency, collectors tend to focus on the medals of one particular country.  Fortunately, the field for British awards is particularly wide and a named medal allows for research. Being able to verify a medal’s origin (with Army records, citations or personal letters) can add much to both its significance and its value.
  2. Condition is of huge importance. A mint condition piece in its original box with original documentation and/or photograph is the ideal.
  3. Medals should be stored carefully as many materials, including cloth, paper and plastics, actually leach corrosive gas over time. Never store them in a sunlit position.
  4. There are generally six types of medal: decoration, campaign, long and meritorious service, commemorative, unofficial and foreign ones. Those awarded to individuals who distinguished themselves in some way are much more prized by collectors than campaign ones given to people who took part in a particular conflict, battle or theatre of war.  
  5. The first medals were issued in 1810 to officers during the Peninsular War against Napoleon.  Generally, officers’ medals fetch higher prices than those of ordinary soldiers.
  6. Wearing the medal of a deceased relative as a way of remembering them is fine but pretending to be the recipient is an offence.  It’s also illegal for a serviceman/woman to sell their medals while still in the armed forces.
  7. Medals associated with famous engagements, like the Charge of the Light Brigade, the Battle of Britain and the Zulu War, fetch particularly high prices.  A clasp or bar might be attached to a medal’s ribbon show the recipient’s participation in specific (named) campaigns. 
  8. A Great War Victory Medal is an affordable first piece for your collection – they start at about £12, depending on condition.
  9. The Victoria Cross (instituted by its namesake in 1856) remains Britain’s highest military decoration.  Tradition had it that these medals were struck from the bronze of Russian cannon captured during the Crimean War. With just 1,538 awarded, prices regularly exceed £100,000.
  10. As with all other collectables, fakes are sometimes offered for sale so it is important to check an item’s authenticity as thoroughly as possible before parting with any money. 
The reverse of a nice group of Royal Navy medals: a Great War campaign trio and, far left, a long service medal known in the service as a ‘Blue Peter’.

We’ll be covering all of the major categories of medal mentioned in point 4 over the next few weeks so this is a great opportunity to get started in a field which is becoming ever more popular.  Our thanks to Michael Burroughs, one of our leading militaria dealers who will have the featured pieces for sale this Saturday at Charing Cross Collectors Market.

New Year’s Resolution: Check Your Change

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Without knowing it, you could have a nice little windfall hiding amongst your change right now. And if you don’t check it out, someone else surely will.

Top left is an early version of the 50p coin released by the Royal Mint in 2011 to celebrate the London Olympics the previous year. Nearly all these coins have no lines going over the swimmer’s face but an unknown number of the coin’s original design (with lines shown here) were released in error. One was sold in May for £590.

The Kew Gardens 50p shown top right owes its value of roughly £100 purely to the fact that it was minted in fewer numbers than any other – just 210,000. Most of these are already in the hands of collectors so they should hold their value well – in spite of the fact that the Royal Mint reissued it as part of a limited run earlier this year. It sold out in seven hours….

You might think that a run of 1.8 million 50 pence coins would be plenty but apparently not. The 2017 coin commemorating the 375th anniversary of Sir Isaac Newton’s birth is now much sought after. Prices vary wildly though so this is a coin to keep as a long-term investment.

Finally, this humble 20p coin in the bottom right may look like any of the others in your change. But if yours has no date on either side then it is one of just 120,000 minted in error in 2008. Congratulations, it routinely sells for over £50.

It takes just a few seconds for this spot of homemade alchemy to see if you’ve turned base metal into gold but please beware: there are plenty of fakes out there, especially online. If you want to check on a coin’s authenticity you can always bring it down to the Home of Collecting itself: Charing Cross Market. We’re open every Saturday from 7am to 3pm.

Either way, while checking your change is always a good habit, keeping an eye out for these particular coins might be a profitable resolution for 2020. Happy hunting.