Violette Szabó, the daughter of a British father and French mother, undertook extremely dangerous missions for her King and Country that ended with her execution as a spy. Szabó joined the secretive Special Operations Executive after her husband died in battle in 1942 fighting with Free French forces in Africa. She left her daughter from that marriage, Tania, in the care of her own parents when she was parachuted into France to work with the Resistance.
On her second such mission, Szabó was captured following a gun battle at a roadblock manned by soldiers from the 2nd SS Panzer Division, “Das Reich.” She was subsequently interrogated and tortured by the Gestapo before being executed at Ravensbruck Concentration Camp in early 1945 at age 23.
In 1947, King George posthumously awarded her with the George Cross, which is the United Kingdom’s second-highest military honor. Szabó’s young daughter, Tania, accepted the award on behalf of her mother. One the few things Tania remembered about that day was the King telling her he needed to pin the medal on her right side because she was acting as her mother’s representative, and that it was particularly important that she always wear the Cross on the right-hand side in the future.
Years later, Tania, who never had any children, reluctantly decided to part with her mother’s medals, including the George Cross, and some memorabilia to help provide for her own old age. The lot, which included a French Croix de Guerre, three other campaign medals, a parachute bag and documents, including false identity papers, subsequently was purchased for £ 260,000 pounds at a Dix Noonan Webb auction in 2015.
Auctions of military decorations like those awarded to Violette Szabó are common and uncontroversial in the UK. There are numerous regular sales of Orders and Decorations with the medal groups featuring its highest miliary award, the Victoria Cross, fetching the highest prices.
Such medal groups are typically sold with the service history of the individual to whom they were awarded. As with many other collectibles, prices have climbed dramatically over the years. The first Victoria Cross sold at auction at Sotheby’s in 1884 fetched £26, a large sum at the time. It had been awarded to Seaman Thomas Reeves for gallantry at the Battle of Inkermann during the Crimean War.
The current sales record for a Victoria Cross is of £930,000 ($1.075 million) by Noonans in a September 14, 2022 sale of Orders, Decorations, Medals and Militaria. This Victoria Cross was awarded to Irishman Thomas Henry Kavanagh for gallantry during the Indian Mutiny of 1857. Kavanaugh, one of the few civilians to win the award, left the safety of the Residency in Lucknow, the main British stronghold in the area, to deliver a vital dispatch and then led a relieving force that undertook a successful evacuation effort.
In contrast to the UK, the legality of the sale of US orders and decorations is far less clear. One federal statute makes it illegal to buy and sell US military medals unless authorized by regulation. Another, the Stolen Valor Act of 2013, makes it illegal to fraudulently wear military medals or decorations to obtain something of value. One complication is that soldiers who are awarded medals are allowed to purchase duplicates to wear on their uniforms so they can keep their originals safe at home.
Another issue is that as veterans pass away without heirs, their medals often end up for sale. Certainly, US military medals and decorations can easily be found at antique markets and on eBay. The one clear exception is the Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest US award for bravery.
Back in 1990s, H.L.I. Lordship Industries, which had a federal contract to produce the medals, was accused of selling examples to a dealer for $75 apiece. The government estimates approximately 1,000 such medals were sold, but as part of a plea deal Lordship admitted to selling 350 of them, for which it was fined $80,000 plus $22,500, the amount it profited from the sales. Since then, the FBI has been on the lookout for other illegal Medals of Honor, which are confiscated and presumably destroyed.
There are other complications in collecting Orders and Decorations of Nazi Germany. Many examples taken from German troops during WWII came home to the US as souvenirs. They are not illegal per se although some US sales platforms like eBay prohibit their sale for fear of promoting Neo-Nazism. Restrictions in other countries, like Germany, are far more stringent. Countries in Eastern Europe similarly ban Communist symbols as unwanted reminders of life behind the Iron Curtain and more recently in reaction to Russian aggression in Ukraine aimed at reconstituting the Soviet Union.
As for Violette Szabó’s medals, the purchaser, Lord Ashcroft, graciously loaned them to the Imperial War Museum in London where they have been seen by millions of visitors.
Peter K. Tompa has written extensively about cultural heritage issues, particularly those of interest to the numismatic trade. Peter contributed to Who Owns the Past?” (K. Fitz Gibbon, ed, Rutgers 2005). He formerly served as executive director of the Global Heritage Alliance and now is a member of its board of directors. This article is a public resource for general information and opinion about cultural property issues and is not intended to be a source for legal advice. Any factual patterns discussed may or may not be inspired by real people and events.
Next Month: NFTs: Flash in a Pan or Here to Stay?
On Violette Szabó and her medals
Female spy’s war medals sell at auction for over $500,000, The Straits Times (July 23, 2015) (last visited January 26, 2023).
Young, Brave and Beautiful, the Lady (undated) (last visited January 26, 2023).
On the Victoria Cross:
The Victoria Cross at Auction Part I: 1856-1983, Spink (undated) (last visited January 26, 2023).
The Victoria Cross at Auction Part 2: 1983-1999, Spink (undated) (last visited January 26, 2023).
The Victoria Cross at Auction Part 3: 2000-2011, Spink (undated) (last visited January 26, 2023).
Victoria Cross medal sells for record $1M at Noonans, Auction Central News (September 21, 2011) (last visited January 26, 2023).
On US Orders and Decorations:
Clifford Davis, No need to steal the medals of military valor – you can buy them, The Florida Times Union (July 11, 2015) (last visited January 26, 2023)
On Bans of Nazi and Communist Symbols:
Allie Conte, Getting Rid of Nazi Memorabilia Is Harder Than It Sounds, Vice (April 4, 2018) (last visited January 26, 2023).
Bans on communist symbols, Wikipedia (undated) (last visited January 26, 2023)