When it comes to commodities, war medals might be the most precious kind a Canadian can own. And they can command an accordingly steep price.
Dealers are offering to pay six figures to those willing to sell rare military medals. Quebec-based International Auction travels through much of the country setting up tables in shopping malls and hotels looking to buy things like gold, watches, hockey cards, coins and anything else that could be considered a collectible — including war medals.
Before they arrive in a community, the company sends out glossy flyers advertising what they’re willing to buy and how they’re paying “the highest amounts” for people’s items.
“We just try to give an idea to people of what we are looking for,” said Sylvan Martineau, the owner of International Auction. “We’re interested to purchase all kinds of medals, war medals.”
In a flyer circulated before their recent stops in Nova Scotia, International Auction advertised it would pay $150,000 for a Canadian Victoria Cross, showing a photo of a medal with the Latin inscription “Pro Valore.”
However, that Canadian Victoria Cross shown is an impossibly rare item — no one has been awarded the medal since it was created in 1993.
The original Victoria Cross was started by Queen Victoria in 1856 and was handed out by the British government. It has been awarded to fewer than 100 Canadians, and the last one was issued to a Canadian in 1945, according to Lt.-Col. Carl Gauthier, the director of honours and recognition at the Department of National Defence.
The newer Canadian version is identical to the British Victoria Cross, except that the British medal has the words “For Valour” inscribed on it, while the Canadian medal uses Latin. The Canadian Victoria Cross is awarded for “the most conspicuous acts of gallantry under fire in combat, against an armed enemy,” Gauthier said.
“It certainly could not be sold because there’s none out there,” he said.
“Obviously, it’s either a lack of research or understanding there to show a medal that is impossible to acquire.”
Gauthier said the photo of the Canadian Victoria Cross used in the flyer is likely an image distributed by the military when the medal was unveiled.
Andrew Moss believes the company has other reasons for offering six figures for a war medal in their flyer. He’s the owner of Prospect of Whitby Antiques in Halifax.
“I think it’s shock factor, I think they want you to bring your medals in hoping you’re going to be the one that, you know, everyone hopes that they’re going to be the one that has that $150,000 medal. In reality, most medals are worth, much, much less than that,” said Moss.
Even if the company was after a British Victoria Cross, the $150,000 they’re offering is incredibly low compared to what those medals usually sell for, according to Gauthier.
“They command a very, very high value,” he said.
A British Victoria Cross awarded to David Currie of Saskatchewan during the Second World War sold in 2017 for a reported $550,000. The Canadian War Museum later stepped in and bought the medal to keep it on Canadian soil.
“Another one to a corporal in the First World War was purchased by the [Canadian] War Museum at auction for $420,000,” said Gauthier.
Martineau said his company only puts the minimum price they will offer for items in their flyers and that they are willing to offer more money for an item if they believe it’s worth it.
Christopher McCreery says people should know what their medal is worth before they try to sell it. He’s an expert in Canadian honours, including military medals and has written 15 books on the topic.
“They’re [International Auction] not experts in medals, they’re buying as low as possible and selling as high as possible via eBay, so it makes you wonder why people wouldn’t throw their own stuff on eBay rather than going through the middle man, then they’d at least realize what the market is going to give them for it,” said McCreery.
If people do want to sell any kind of military medal, McCreery advises them to do their research and search for the item online and talk to a local coin or military memorabilia collector to get an idea of what the item is actually worth.
Still, the idea of selling military medals at all is distasteful to some people, such as Ken Hynes. He’s the chief curator of the Army Museum at the Halifax Citadel. He said if people want to get rid of their medals they can always donate them to a museum to make sure they’re preserved.
Although he doesn’t like the idea of buying and selling medals, Hynes admits that most times medal collectors do help and ensure that medals survive.
What pains him is when people break up a group of medals, selling each medal individually. Together, a group of medals tell a soldier’s story — where they served, what they did and sometimes how long they served. If the group is broken apart, that story can be lost, said Hynes.
“Often times, a medals group is the last vestige of a person’s life, it’s an example of their service and sacrifice to our country and so to lose that history and to lose that personal connection with those who have gone before us, I think is a sad thing,” he said.
As for someone heading out to a shopping mall or hotel to sell a British Victoria Cross to International Auction — Hynes doesn’t think that’s worth worrying about.
“To have a Victoria Cross available would be unusual, to have a family willing to part with it would be extremely unusual, and for someone being willing to accept that amount of money for a Victoria Cross would be unheard of in my view,” said Hynes.