Collecting U.S. Military Medals: The Value is in the Brooch
Lieutenant Audie Murphy, seen here in dress uniform, has been called “the most decorated soldier in World War Two.” Among the medals he is wearing is the Medal of Honor, the Distinguished Service Cross, a Silver Star Medal with one Oak Leaf Cluster, the Legion of Merit, a Bronze Star Medal with “V” Device and one Oak Leaf Cluster and a Purple Heart with two Oak leaf Clusters. If you could see the backs of these medals, they would most likely have been made with “slot brooch” devices.
If there’s one universal tenet observed by collectors of U.S. military medals, it is this: The value of the medals is in the brooch.
While that may be an oversimplification, it’s also largely true. The type of brooch used to attach the medal to the uniform will tell you a lot about the medal, including just how valuable it may be.
In most cases, U.S. medals are made of four components: a medal pendant (usually bronze), a brass connection ring, a silk ribbon and an attachment device, or brooch. Except for signs of age and handling wear, it’s difficult to tell a medal pendant made in the 1930s from one made in the 1960s, since medal manufacturers continued to use the same die molds. The same goes for the ring, which has the sole purpose of attaching the pendant to the ribbon. The brooch is another story.
The Split Brooch
U.S. medals, as we know them today, have a fairly short history. Although a few medal-type decorations were issued in the 1800s, the real effort to honor this nation’s fighting men didn’t begin until the early part of the 20th century when the U.S. military started authorizing and issuing service, campaign and valor medals with established criteria for the various branches.
Medals issued in the early 1900s had what is called a “split brooch.” The split brooch was an open loop of metal with the “pinback” attachment device soldered to the open edges. The moire silk ribbon was wrapped around the brooch and sewn across to hold it in place.
Medals with split brooches were made from the early 1900s to the end of World War I and are among the most sought after and valuable of the U.S. military medals.
The split brooch was an open loop of metal with the “pinback” attachment device soldered to the open edges. The moire silk ribbon was wrapped around the brooch and sewn across to hold it in place.
These World War I Victory Medals show the difference between a “wrap brooch” (on the right) and a “split brooch.”
Medals with split brooches were made from the early 1900s to the end of the Frist World War and are among the most sought after and valuable of the U.S. military medals.
The Wrap Brooch
The “wrap brooch” style construction began at the end of World War I and was used until the beginning of World War II. Wrap brooches were similar to the split brooch, but with a closed metal loop, which extended all the way across the back of the medal. The silk ribbon was “wrapped” through the loop and sewn in place. Wrap brooch medals are considered only slightly less valuable than split brooch medals.
The slot brooch is a hallmark of World War II-era medals. This Purple Heart is engraved with the owner’s name, which greatly increases its value.
Serial numbers engraved on the rim of U.S. medals can greatly enhance their value.
The Slot Brooch
“Slot brooch” medals were made from the early 1940s into the early ’50s. The slot brooch is a hallmark of World War II-era medals. The attachment device is a flat metal fitting with a “slot” cut into the top portion. The silk ribbon is threaded through the slot and overhangs the front of the brooch. The lower part of the fitting has holes on either side to sew it to the ribbon. Although not as rare as the split or wrap styles, slot brooch medals are still highly collectible, especially if they are engraved with names or dates.
The Crimp Brooch
“Crimp brooch” medals can be easily identified because the ribbons are no longer sewn to the brooches. Instead the edges of the fitting are “crimped” onto the ribbon to hold it in place. That simplified manufacturing style is still used today with many medals now being made with “clutchback” attachment posts. Crimp brooch medals are the least collectible U.S. medals and generally need some other aspect—engraved name, high prominence—to make them valuable.
“Crimp brooch” medals were made from the 1950s to today and usually need some other aspect—engraved name, high prominence—to make them valuable.
While the type of brooch is important, there are other features that can make a U.S. medal more valuable. The type of medal, including high prominence, can be an important factor.
The Medal of Honor is the nation’s highest military decoration, but laws prohibit anyone selling the medal (it can only be legally donated or given away). Last year the Supreme Court ruled the Stolen Valor Act of 2005, which made it a criminal offense to make false claims of having been awarded the Medal of Honor, was an unconstitutional violation of the first Amendment’s guarantee of free speech. However, the Court did not address the constitutionality of the ban on selling the medal, which is punishable by a fine up to $100,000.
Other high prominence medals such as the Navy Cross, the Air Force Cross and the Army’s Distinguished Service Cross are not covered by the ban and can be sold legally. Depending on their age, they can be very valuable.
Medals for exceptional valor and heroism, including the Silver Star, Distinguished Flying Cross, Airman’s Medal, Navy and Marine Corps Medal and Soldier’s Medal, also tend to be more collectible, as is the Purple Heart, which can only be awarded for wounds received as a direct result of enemy action.
The Medal of Honor is the nation’s highest military decoration, but laws prohibit anyone selling the medal (it can only be legally donated or given away).
Other high prominence medals such as the Army’s Distinguished Service Cross, the Navy Cross, the Air Force Cross, and even the Silver Star, can be sold legally. Depending on their age, they can be very valuable.
Engravings are an important way not only to date a medal, but to ensure that it is original and not a later restrike. Medals issued in the early 1900s were often rim-engraved with serial numbers. Purple Hearts, prior to World War II, almost always had rim engraved serial numbers, as did medals issued for service in foreign campaigns such as the Puerto Rico Occupation (1898), China Campaign (1900-1901), Nicaraguan Campaign (1912) and Mexican Service (1911-1917).
The owner’s engraved name is one of the most important features to look for when collecting U.S. medals. There are two types of engraving: hand and machine done. In a hand engraving, the letters tend to be uneven with stylistic flourishes. When a machine is used, the printing is usually neat and uniform. Hand engravings, including unit numbers, combat theaters and dates, are most commonly seen on medals made during World War II and earlier and can greatly increase the value of a U.S. medal.
The thing to remember about U.S. medals is that just because it’s modern made, doesn’t mean it’s a reproduction. In fact, there are very few U.S. medals that are considered actual reproductions, mainly due to the difficulty of reproducing the early-style brooches and replicating the required engravings. What you see most often are simply modern restrikes of old campaign medals, almost always with the modern crimp brooches.
So when you find a U.S. medal, the first thing to do is flip it over and look at the back of the brooch. Nine times out of 10, that will tell you all you need to know.
Ken Hatfield, a former newspaper journalist for more than 20 years with a lifelong interest in military history, is the author of “Heartland Heroes: Remembering WWII,”published by the University of Missouri Press in 2003. He has worked for Manion’s International Auction House for nine years, specializing in American Militaria.
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