Thursday 22 March 2018

Stories add value to wartime medals

Ireland's fine arts, antiques and collectables column

Victory Medal, The 1914 Star, and British War Medal
Victory Medal, The 1914 Star, and British War Medal
Kathleen Clarke medal

Eleanor Flegg

Every military medal tells a story. The better the story, the more that medal will be worth. Take Vice-Admiral Gordon Campbell's Victoria Cross for example.

During the First World War he commanded a Q-Ship. This was a decoy vessel, designed to look like a merchant ship. Its purpose was to attract German submarines within range of its hidden guns. When it did so, the crew would stage a "panic party", pretending to abandon ship, before they opened fire.

"I came to the conclusion that the only way for us to ensure decoying the enemy to the surface was deliberately to get torpedoed," Campbell recorded in his book, My Mystery Ships (1928). It was a tactic that demanded a lot of discipline from the crew, who were basically being used as live bait. Campbell was awarded the Victoria Cross for steering his vessel into the path of a U-Boat torpedo, drawing in the enemy submarine through the ruse of a panic party, and then destroying it as his own ship slowly sank.

There is always a good story behind a WWI Victoria Cross, the highest award for gallantry in the British armed forces.

It was awarded 628 times to 627 recipients for action in the World War I (37 of these were Irish). One of these medals alone could fetch up to €100,000 at auction. If it belonged to a famous person, and was sold as part of a group, it could be worth a great deal more.

In November 2017, Vice-Admiral Campbell's medals went under the hammer at Morton & Eden, London. They were catalogued as: "Unique Mystery Victoria Cross and triple DSO group of 11" and purchased, for £840,000 (€962,456), by one of Campbell's descendants.

Most World War I medals are worth far less than this, but there's a lesson here for anyone who inherits a collection. Don't break up the group. In the Irish context, this goes against the grain. The natural inclination is to give one to each sibling, in much the same way that people used to divide the family farm. But, before you split up a collection, bear in mind that a group of medals awarded to the same person is worth more than the sum of its parts.

The most likely collection of WWI medals to be found in a family collection are campaign medals, awarded to anyone who saw service in World War I.

The most common is a group of three: the 1914 Star or 1914-15 Star, British War Medal, and Victory Medal (these were popularly known as Pip, Squeak and Wilfred, called after cartoon characters of the time).

Since they were awarded to thousands of returning soldiers, service medals aren't particularly valuable.

The good news is that a group of medals awarded to an Irish soldier who fought in an Irish regiment will be worth more than the same medals awarded to an English soldier who fought in an English regiment.

The Irish medals might fetch between €150 and €200 at auction; the English, which are more common, between €80 and €120.

Around 200,000 Irish soldiers fought on the British side in the World War I. Most were volunteers (some for patriotic reasons and some because they needed the money).

The poet, Francis Ledwidge, enlisted because Britain "stood between Ireland and an enemy common to our civilisation and I would not have her say she defended us while we did nothing at home but pass resolutions". He died in the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917.

An estimated 30,000 Irish died in World War I and memorial plaques, known as Death Pennies, were awarded to their next-of-kin. These were about 5 inches in diameter, made of bronze, and designed by Edward Carter Preston to show Britannia with a trident and a lion, and the words '(S)HE DIED FOR FREEDOM AND HONOUR'. The design also includes a box where the name of the deceased was stamped.

Prices paid for Death Pennies vary widely at auction, largely depending on the level of interest in the person and the story behind them. In 2016, a WWI Memorial Plaque to Rev Patrick Looby, killed in action at Passchendaele in 1917, sold at Whyte's for €520.

This is a relatively high price for a memorial plaque - most sell for between €120 and €200 - but Looby, who was born in Cahir, Co Tipperary, was a chaplain in the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers. Chaplains' plaques are rare and the lot included two chaplain's collar badges and a cap badge.

Other potentially valuable medals include Constabulary medals, awarded to members of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) and the Dublin Metropolitan Police who fought with the British Army in World War I.

These are rare, unique to Ireland, and can be worth up between €5,000 and €7,000.

Whyte's Eclectic Collector Auction, which takes place tomorrow, includes two modest collections of WWI service medals awarded to Irish soldiers and sailors with upper estimates of less than €200.

Not much is known about the recipients but, for some collectors, this will be an advantage. "There have been times in the past when we've done a lot of research into the recipients of First World War medals, only to have collectors complain that we've taken all the fun out of it," the auctioneers at Whyte's explain. "Some of the collectors are in it for the excitement of the research!"

See and

In the Salerooms

Milltown Country Auction Rooms

With good solid materials and craftsmanship that has already stood the test of time, there's great value in Victorian mahogany dining chairs. There's a set of 10 (est €800 to €1,200) coming up at the next Antique Auction at Joe Lennon's Milltown Country Auction Rooms, Dundalk, Co Louth, on Monday at 4pm. Other pieces of interest include a Georgian oak chest (est €600 to €800); a 19th-century African stool (est €300 to €400); a Regency mahogany extending dining table (est €2,000 to €3,000); and a hand-painted Chinese dinner and tea service (est €300 to €500) of 92 pieces! Viewing is from Saturday to Monday with details on and live bidding on The auction is conducted with Lev Mitchell & Sons.

Antiques & Vintage Fairs

The next Antiques and Vintage Fair at Trim Castle, Co Meath, takes place this Sunday. Expect an array of antique jewellery, vintage fashions, accessories, and homeware as well as silverware, crystal, porcelain, rare coins, banknotes and books. The fair runs from 12 noon to 6 pm and admission is €3.50 (see Also on Sunday, Leighinmohr Hotel, Ballymena, Co Antrim will host an AVA Antique & Collectors Fair. It will include furniture as well as vintage advertising, glass, books and ephemera, lamps, barometers, clocks, and curios. The fair runs from 11am to 2pm and admission is £2. There is no admission charge for children and free valuations will be given on the day.


There's still time to bid on the online-only timed auction of the photographic equipment of the late Jacqueline O'Brien, with bidding continuing until 5 pm today. O'Brien, wife of the horse trainer Vincent O'Brien, became a photographer when she took over the job of photographing horses for the sales. For those that see a future for analogue film in a world of digital photography there is much of interest here, with unusual lots including a Nikon Nikonos-V Underwater 35mm film camera with two lenses and flash (est €60 to €100). See


Kathleen Clarke medal

Kathleen Clarke's 1916 Rising medal (est €10,000-€15,000, pictured) is among the potential top lots at Whyte's Eclectic Collector auction, which takes place tomorrow at 11am. Clarke who wished to join her husband Tom in the GPO during the Rising, was ordered to stay at home to receive and distribute communications, and to care for the dependents of those who fought.

The auction also includes a number of British WWI recruitment posters (est from €200) and 1916 handbill (€100 to €150) addressing Irish combatants in the World War I: "You Irishmen in Khaki! You were told to fight for the Freedom of Small Nations. The English who murdered Mrs Tom Clarke's Husband and Brother are now doing Mrs Tom Clarke to Death in an English Jail. Have you and your comrades abroad nothing to say to this?"


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