Interview: David Erskine-Hill, Medal Specialist at Dix Noonan Webb
Interview: David Erskine-Hill, Medal Specialist at Dix Noonan Webb
'Generations of collectors have been worthy guardians of medals, says David Erskine-Hill in this interview
David Erskine-Hill has been fascinated with medals and history almost as long as he can remember.
Working at a series of great auction houses, he has seen many exciting sales of fascinating honours including some for six figures in 2009 at Dix Noonan Webb. But the most rewarding part of his work has been meeting the modest men who received the awards in the first place.
What was it that sparked your interest in medals and history at a young age?
My interest in history was sparked by quite a lot of early reading, much of it of a military natureincluding any number of titles detailing POW escape stories from the last War -a subject matter of special interest to anyone holed up in boarding school!
The medal side of things was originally prompted by the discovery of my father's medals in his desk - he had a busy war fighting E-Boats in the Channel, though like so many of that modest generation, rarely spoke of his experiences.
His father had been severely wounded as a young subaltern in the Cameronians at Festubert in 1915 and my mother's father was regular RN in both World Wars; added to which three uncles also saw active service in the last War - one of them being taken POW in North Africa after a last stand by the Hampshires.
It was actually as a result of a small bequest from a godparent that I purchased my first medal from a dealer, aged about 8 or 9 years, and thereafter was given the full support of my parents in pursuing what was clearly an appropriate hobby for my interest in history.
Sergeant Ernest McGarrigle's DCM (1940) McGarrigle was a POW, but escaped
Medals are an ideal way of introducing an interest in history and learning about nation's past. How much of your time is spent researching?
My arrival on the medal scene was absolutely influenced by this inseparable association with our nation's past - indeed it would be difficult to find a more tangible connection with Empire - and Empire in every sense, whether of a social, political or geographical nature, the whole neatly entwined with human endeavour, not to mention the often extraordinary stories of courage and sacrifice at the heart of the subject.
And the story continues to this day, as so markedly illustrated by the more recent conflicts in the Falklands, Iraq and Afghanistan. So with evidence of such selfless behaviour, of duty and loyalty to others before all else, my 10 year old daughter has to put up with the occasional lecture!
Research is the key to the entire hobby - it is the background to the campaign or war, and the recipient and unit history that inspires the collecting fraternity. Luckily at DNW we have an extensive reference library, so a lot of research potential is at our fingertips.
What have been the highlights for you during your years in the business?
As touched upon in my introduction, the greatest pleasure I have derived from my career has been the opportunity it has afforded me to meet so many wonderful war heroes - many of them household names and all of them, without fail, remarkably modest. They have been an inspiration to me.
I have also travelled extensively over the years, making numerous business trips to Australia, Canada, the U.S.A., South Africa and elsewhere, thereby adding many lifelong friends to those I have made in the U.K., this undoubtedly another great pleasure to be derived from such a hobby, for it attracts collectors from all over the world.
How does your company stand apart from its competitors?
The specialists at DNW are all ex-major London medal auction or dealer staff, the idea being to bring together our experience and knowledge for a single aim - to cater for the collecting fraternity at large to the best of our abilities.
The large auction houses no longer entertain "small turnover' departments" as was the case when I joined the business some 30 years ago. It therefore made sense to establish an independent auction house, bringing together relevant specialists with often differing strengths.
I am particularly keen on the Second World War - and over the years have focused on the RN and RAF, whereas another of my colleagues is strong on early awards, another on the Great War, and another still on foreign Orders, Decorations & Medals.
Has the credit-crunch had an impact on your business?
As I write, there are few if any discernible signs of a downturn.
Onenoticeable effect of the credit-crunch has been a reduction in the number of vendors. Yet, this is a perfectly understandable reaction in uncertain times and it will no doubt take the General Election and beyond to settle that uncertainty one way or the other.
But overall, the market remains buoyant, with plenty of record prices still being established at the top end. In conclusion, if I were still a collector, I would bid with confidence, for this is a long-established hobby with a strong and diverse following.
Are you seeing a growth in the number of collectors? From any particular ages groups /countries?
Membership of the major medal societies suggests a numerically steady collecting fraternity, and it is pleasing to regularly see "new faces" attending our auctions or participating in our new website sales.
I see no reason why numbers should diminish, not with the advent of modern technology that opens up a whole new world audience - and a definitive growth in interest in the past by way of the media at large, whether prompted by family research or prominent military anniversaries.
The strongest collector bases remain the U.K. and the U.S.A., but a keen following may be found in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa.
And then new markets emerge with a changing world - such as a cavalry charge by Russians to collect the insignia from their Imperial past - but currently a charge that has ground to a halt. So, too, are their early signs of emerging markets in the Far East and India, as a result of drastically changing world economies.
What are the oldest and most modern medals you have seen sold at auction?
The oldest will most probably be an 18th century Order of Chivalry of one form or another - awards that rarely come with much recipient history but nonetheless are works of art in their own right, often in gold and enamels, even diamond-set, and sometimes manufactured by famous court jewelers.
Certainly I recall selling a magnificent collar chain and badge of the Order of the Thistle (K.T.) - circa 1750 - while at Sotheby's.
LC Justin Thomas's Conspicuous Gallantry Medal Earned as a Marine in Iraq 2003 (sold by DNW for 105,600)
Such insignia is formally returnable to the Crown on the recipient's demise, so I had to trek off to Buckingham Palace to get permission to proceed with the sale - luckily other examples were in the Royal Collection, and I was given the go ahead.
The most modern award will be the current Afghanistan Medal, such awards coming onto the market very quickly when servicemen and women depart the Forces.
By way of illustrating just how quickly, I remember selling the first Falklands Medal to appear at auction in 1982 - it was consigned by a merchant seaman who had served on the Q.E. II, and he came straight from the Victory Parade to our offices!
What is the most moving historical story you know attached to a medal?
JRF 'Frank' Wild's Polar medal (sold by DNW for 132,000)
Over the years I have encountered so many moving stories of courage and self-sacrifice, the majority, of course, relating to gallant deeds at sea, on land or in the air by our servicemen and women.
Accordingly it is a question I am hard-pushed to answer. But by way of introducing a different angle of the world of Honours & Awards, I might cite the Polar Medals to Captain Lawrence Oates, Lieutenant "Birdie" Bowers and Petty Officer Edgar Evans, all of whom died with Captain Scott in his ill-fated Antarctic Expedition 1910-13.
Amazingly, each of their Medals passed through my hands at auction in a 12 month period back in the 1980s. And surely it would be nigh on impossible to find stronger examples of that raw physical courage that stir heart, mind and soul?
What is the most unusual item you have seen sold?
One of the major bonuses of collecting medals is the fact they are often accompanied by some fascinating photographs and documentation, not to mention a host of related artefacts, whether uniform, sword or even a piece of shrapnel extracted at a Field Dressing Station - the latter has indeed turned up in my time.
So yet again a difficult question to answer, for one would be able to quote a number of interesting cases. But having viewed one of Dan Snow's programmes about the history of the Royal Navy last night, I am prompted to quote the case of Admiral Byng's ring - he who was executed by firing squad on the main deck of his own command for failing to relieve Minorca.
According to Voltaire, in his Candide, the execution was carried out 'Pour encourager les autres', an observation supported by the generations of more aggressive naval officer that followed.
Consigned for sale with a good provenance, it was by no means a spectacular ring - plain gold and set with an amethyst: but in terms of a tangible association with the poor man's miserable fate, nothing could be closer - for he removed it and presented it to a fellow officer - one Mr. Masters - on the day of his execution, 14 March 1757.
Are you a collector? If so, what do you collect?
Alas, my collecting days soon came to a grinding halt on an auction house salary - the weekly rent on my room in Wandsworth in 1980 was 25 and my equivalent net salary just 35! But I made a good profit on my modest collection when compelled to sell it in the same year. Until then, my collection was of a general across-the-board nature, whereas today one would most likely specialize in a particular campaign or unit.
Who do you most admire in your field, past or present?
The men and the women who have won the medals and continue to do so to this day. Followed by generations of collectors who have been worthy guardians of their Honours & Awards - not least for the ongoing achievement of researching and commemorating such memorable lives and deeds. And lastly - most humbly submitted - my fellow cataloguers who share that duty!
What is your hot advice to collectors for 2010? Which market will excel? Are there any new trends emerging?
It may well be that 2010 will prove to be a buyer's market - but whatever trends emerge over the coming months, my advice would always be to buy gallantry awards or "classics", funds permitting.
In other words, in the long term - by way of investment potential - it might make sense to buy one such "classic" rather than a dozen or so more run-of-the-mill items. And in any case a wide variety of gallantry awards and "classics" may still be purchased for less than 1000 - extend the budget to 2000 or 3000 and some really excellent buys are available.
Never be tempted by items in poor condition or with numismatic faults, just because they appear to be a reasonable price. We are always available at DNW to discuss just such topics, so never hesitate to pick up the telephone if you need some advice.
What advice would you give to someone starting out?
Only deal with well-established dealers and auctioneers, who will always offer a full refund if an item has been described erroneously - such businesses, will be discovered via membership of the Orders & Medals Research Society (O.M.R.S.), and subscription to the collectors' magazine Medal News.
Make use of these contacts - plenty of collectors establish a working relationship with a specialist at an auction house, where the advice is free, and we particularly welcome such approaches at DNW, where we are always happy to serve as "minder" to the newly arrived collector.
David Erskine-Hill went straight from school to Christie's, and then moved to Sotheby's in 1980, where his love of history led him to specialise in Orders, Medals & Decorations. He was appointed an Auctioneer in 1987, then Deputy Director and Head of a newly created Medals, Militaria, Arms & Armour Department.
David next joined Spink & Son as Head of the Medal Department in 1997 and, in June 2002, moved to Dix Noonan Webb.
He regularly carries out valuation work for national institutions, and is a special adviser to the Royal Green Jackets Museum at Winchester.
Images: Dix Noonan Webb