Interview with Michael Naxton, curator of Lord Ashcroft's medal collection
The George Cross of secret agent Violette Szabo recently auctioned for £260,000 – a record for a GC. The buyer was Lord Ashcroft, the UK's 37th richest man, who now owns 15 GCs, to add to his 200 Victoria Crosses – a collection he began in 1986.
The curator of Lord Ashcroft's collection is Michael Naxton, the former head of Sotheby's medals department. Exactly the kind of man you want on your side when bidding for the world's rarest and most valuable medals.
In the aftermath of the Szabo sale, Michael kindly took the time to talk with JustCollecting about Lord Ashcroft's collection, why modern VCs have such allure, and the notoriety of the eight forfeited VCs.
JustCollecting: The record £260,000 for the Szabo GC is comparable to recent prices for many VCs. Do you see this sale as the moment when GC values catch up to their VC counterparts – or is this price a one-off, and more a reflection of the extraordinary story of Violette Szabo?
Michael Naxton: No, I don’t see this as a seminal moment when GC prices suddenly start to match those of VCs. The price for the Szabo award was quite simply due to its extraordinary nature compared to so many GCs which have, in the main, been awarded either for bomb disposal or some similar sort of civilian gallantry far away from “the face of the enemy”. The fact that the recipient was a woman, one of the only four ever granted, was another hugely important factor.
What are the things you look for when deciding whether to bid on a VC at auction? The story? The conflict? Condition? Or is Lord Ashcroft simply looking to acquire as many VCs as possible?
We take pretty much every factor into account except the physical condition of the medals when deciding to bid. That said, the collection is now so extensive that we are really only looking to fill ‘gaps’ compared to when the collection got started and we were buying practically all of those which became available – but not each and every one as many people thought and still think.
When pinpointing new VCs for the collection, do you place more importance on the heroism of the deed, or the fame of the conflict?
Every VC was awarded for an act of courage, some more daring or risky than others, so I think it is fair to say that the prime factor is probably the significance of the action within the conflict. That said, sometimes it is simply just the conflict if only a tiny number of VCs were awarded (usually because it was only a very short campaign).
Which conflict's VCs will have the most enduring appeal? The Crimea because it was the first? Or the world wars because of their greater fame?
This is purely subjective and most experts I know all have different views. Speaking for both myself and for Lord Ashcroft, we favour the more recent awards simply because, as the years have gone by, VCs have been awarded more and more sparingly because other decorations have been introduced for lesser acts of bravery.
Do VCs connected with a famous action (the Charge of the Light Brigade, for example) have extra appeal to collectors?
Undoubtedly: a VC for the Charge of the Light Brigade or the Defence of Rorke’s Drift is bound to excite the average collector more than a broadly similar award won for an incident at a battle no-one’s ever heard of. Similarly, I suggest that a VC won on the fateful first day of the battle of the Somme in 1916 would almost certainly make more than one awarded for bravery on the second day even though the actual act of gallantry might be much the same or possibly even better.
The Noel Chavasse VC and bar is by a clear margin the most valuable item in the Lord Ashcroft collection. Is its "almost unique" nature as a double award solely responsible for this?
Without question the value of the Chavasse group is because it is one of the only three ‘double VCs’ ever awarded. It is also the only one for the Great War and the two citations, particularly that for his Bar (the 2nd VC), are quite outstanding.
There are eight forfeited VCs, one for stealing a cow. Are these VCs less attractive to collectors because they've been "tainted", or does the extra intrigue surrounding them add to their desirability?
I believe the forfeited status increases the overall interest of the VC enormously although it is debateable whether this notoriety actually increases the value. Personally I doubt it, as the two forfeited VCs we have (Edward St. John Daniel and James Collis) both cost about the sort of price expected for similar awards of the same date to men whose medals were not forfeited.
Does Lord Ashcroft play an active role in hunting down new VCs for the collection, or is this your domain?
We don’t ‘hunt down’ any VCs in that sense. Lord Ashcroft is totally opposed to what he terms ‘ambulance chasing’ so we ONLY buy VCs which come onto the market from owners who have decided to dispose of them for whatever the reason. That said, Lord Ashcroft’s worldwide business interests are such that he is often overseas. That means I do all the negotiating and purchasing although I keep him informed at every stage and we discuss each and every purchase fully before deciding whether to buy.
Lord Ashcroft's VC collection is on display at London's Imperial War Museum.
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