The Ethics of Collecting Medals – ‘Private James Tilbury’ of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment

Military medals are becoming increasingly valuable, but its the story of courage behind the award that ultimately counts. Whenever I  have seen personal medals for sale either at a dealers or for sale on sites such as eBay I have often wondered about the circumstances that brought them to be for sale.

Over the years many sets are bequeathed to Regimental Museums or Associations however this should always be done with care. In 2015 the Combined Military Services Museum came under fire for selling donated second world war medals. The medals, which belonged to the donor’s father,  were sold on eBay for £32. The Donor  had not given the museum permission to sell the medals and had donated them in the hope they would “be in safe keeping for generations to come”. The Museum had decided that as they had numerous similar items both on display and in storage the donated set would be passed onto a dealer for sale, and the proceeds used for the purchase of other artefacts for display.

We should consider the fact that as people age many tend to get less sentimental about physical objects. It may well be that the person in question had no relatives to leave them to, or that surviving relatives were genuinely not interested or would rather have had a monetary alternative. Perhaps this is where the private collector can play a viable role – if the medal in question is so old that its original owner is sure to be dead, I have less of an ethical issue regarding my purchase. Ive started to collect the medals of soldiers buried in Egypt. To date I have four partial sets which I have started to research and I’m looking forward to uncovering more of their stories. My latest purchase is the Victory Medal belonging to Private James Tilbury of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment. James, an Upholster by profession, enlisted in Oxford and saw service with the Oxford & Bucks Light Infantry before being transferred to the Garrison Battalion with the Royal Warwickshire Regiment at the Abbassia barracks on the outskirts of Cairo. The war diaries record that the regiment has recently been vaccinated against an outbreak of enteric fever (Typhoid) and this may have been how James lost his life, aged 34. James is remembered with honour in the Cairo War Memorial Cemetery, Grave Ref: F. 254.

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Almost all of the collectors I know see themselves as the current custodian and treat the medal with the respect it deserves. The medals remind us of the extraordinary heroism of those who fight for their country and those who lie far from home.

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