Few individuals better personify the eccentric, combative and rarefied world of medal collecting than Michael Ashcroft, the businessman and controversially deep-pocketed Tory party eminence grise. A self-made man whose fortune is estimated by the Sunday Times at £1.1 billion — more than the entire net worth of Belize, the tiny Central American state he calls home — Lord Ashcroft has also carved out a near-monopoly of a very finite resource: the Victoria Cross.
Since being introduced in 1856 at the tail end of the Crimean War, just 1,356 VCs have been awarded. Most are in public collections, notably that of London’s Imperial War Museum. Those that are not are most likely to be in the hands of Lord Ashcroft. The Tory peer owns no fewer than 160 VCs, by far the largest private collection, including one awarded to John Chard during the defence of Rorke’s Drift in 1879. That heroic rearguard action, immortalised in the 1964 film Zulu, made Chard a household name in the highest circles: in the 1880s he was a regular guest of Queen Victoria at Balmoral.
Ashcroft started assembling his hoard in the late 1980s, but his obsession with military bravery dates back to his childhood. Listening to his father — who survived the trauma of the 1944 Normandy landings as a young officer — Ashcroft heard tales of the rough sea, the pinging of machine guns, the smell of fear and vomit. A teenaged desire to own Britain’s highest military decorations never wore off. When he made his first fortune in the late 1980s, he started collecting them.
‘As soon as I could afford to, I found out when the next VC was coming up for auction and bought it,’ says Ashcroft. ‘When my cheque cleared, I was in my office reading and re-reading the story of this extraordinary man and a frisson went through me — one that only a collector can ever have. The feeling was that of not being sated. I knew then that I would never stop collecting.’ Ashcroft’s obsessive hobby was only revealed by the media a few years ago after he bought his 100th VC: the entire collection is set to go on display this autumn at the Imperial War Museum, in a new £5 million wing that he has donated.
The desire to own precious relics of British military heritage is hardly unique. Collectors come in all shapes and guises. Curiously, the richer and more driven the collector, the less likely he or she is to see an acquisition as a straight investment. Ashcroft above all admires ‘what man can do under certain circumstances, whether hot or cold courage: the point where a hand-grenade is about to go off, and one man jumps on it to smother it’.
For the likes of Andrey Khazin, a Moscow-based but passionately Anglophile Russian senator who claims to own the world’s largest hoard of orders such as the Thistle and the Garter, collecting them gives him a small but proud connection to British royalty and its history. Other collectors buy for sentimental purposes. In December 2009, Melissa John snapped up a 1943 VC awarded to Flight Lieutenant Bill Reid for £348,000, a record sum at a British medals auction. Ashcroft’s buyers, present in the crowd at Spink’s Bloomsbury auction house, stopped bidding after the price topped a quarter of a million.
Afterwards, John stood crying in the lobby. Her brother and fellow collector, Christopher, had passed away suddenly a year earlier, aged 47. The pair had trolled medal auctions for years, bidding together for medals and orders, yet had never bought a VC. ‘I had to bid,’ John told me at the time. ‘It is what he always wanted, and I wanted to honour him. It was our passion.’
For many others, collecting is a simple but colourful form of investment. The sum total of military medals awarded to British and Allied soldiers is a known quantity. Each one, from the VC to the Air Force Cross, is registered and recorded: duplication is impossible. Buying one is a perfect hedge against low interest rates and soggy house prices.
John Millensted, chief medals expert at Bonham’s in Knightsbridge, says a reasonable annual return on any investment is between 4 and 10 per cent. Many new collectors are younger people with £10-£20,000 to invest; typically, they have fled equities for cash over the past two years and are now looking for a steady investment in turbulent times.
‘Like a good share portfolio, I wouldn’t stick all of your money into one campaign or one war,’ Millensted cautions any would-be buyer. ‘Perhaps start with a Waterloo medal and then go on to awards handed to people returning from Afghanistan.’ Oliver Pepys, Spink’s chief medals auctioneer, advises collectors to buy from specific campaigns — notably the Crimean War and the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 in India. ‘Both are very popular at the moment,’ he says.
Modern gallantry has been overlooked by a British media and public keen to distance itself from the trauma of events in Central Asia. But public rancour has done little to dampen demand for newly minted medals. Awards for heroism to soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan have been selling for up to £100,000. ‘Modern gallantry is always popular,’ says Spink’s Pepys, ‘If you want to sell a medal won in Iraq or Afghanistan, now is the time to do it — in 30 years more will have been awarded, so the price will be lower.’
As yet, the medals market — worth £20 million per year in the UK and £150 million worldwide — is too small to support any kind of retail fund. This makes advice from the likes of Spink, Bonham’s, and Sydney-based Noble Numismatics all the more valuable.
Noble, founded in 1977, specialises in medals awarded to Antipodean soldiers: according to the firm’s medals expert, John O’Connor, the domestic market for medals has expanded twentyfold over the past two decades. Noble’s next major public auction, starting on 13 April in Sydney, contains more than 100 groups of medals: the most prized items, says O’Connor, will be Vietnam and first world war medals, notably those from the disastrous Gallipoli campaign.
For more casual buyers, there is always a chance of hitting the jackpot. The market for Russian and Chinese medals has exploded in recent years — no doubt because there is so much Russian and Chinese money around to buy them. In 2007 an obscure group of imperial-era Russian medals bought at a London secondhand shop for £25 was sold at a Bonham’s auction for £5,000.
The trick for any amateur collector may be to buy first and research later. By all means browse regimental histories, internet search engines, and the encyclopaedic heritage website, ancestry.co.uk. But John Millensted of Bonham’s notes that a medal bought for £150 in a recent auction was sold before anyone realised the soldier, billeted in Northern Ireland, was fired upon by the IRA. At the next auction, it sold again for £300, doubling its value in just a few months. ‘Collecting can be many things,’ says Millensted. ‘Often it’s a labour of love. But when viewed as an investment, as with any hobby it’s often a matter of being in the right place at the right time.’