“Please tell me what my medal is worth.”
I have been asked that question for over thirty years. Probably because I have been – at various times – a medal dealer, a medal collector, a medal manufacturer, a medal researcher, and even a medal appraiser.
It was most difficult when I was a medal dealer. When someone asked that question most often the person wanted to sell the medal they were inquiring about. If I gave the wrong reply and over estimated the value I could lose money when I went to sell it. If I gave too low an estimate the seller often detected this and would not sell to me. So I had to bring all my experience, all my accumulated knowledge about the piece at hand, and my sense of the current market to arrive at a dollar amount I was willing to pay.
There is no price catalog of medals. No Red Book. And I will tell you why. Medals are not like coins where millions were made, and they are extensively graded and can have as many as a dozen or more different grades, and dozens of wildly divergent values. Coins circulate, and are often available in the thousands. Medals don’t circulate and are often one of a kind, with a multitude of other factors that influence their “value.”
So let’s start with value. The four medal values are: bullion value, sentimental value, collector value and insurance value.
This is the value of the metal in which the medal is made – its composition. Bullion value is only of interest for medals struck in precious metals – silver, gold, platinum. This value changes daily, even hourly as market factors influence the price. The price of precious metals is quoted in newspapers and on the internet for pure metal expressed in dollars per ounce.
To learn the bullion value of your metal, weigh it. If your scale is calibrated in metric Troy ounces (grains) it must be converted to avoirdupois ounces (grams), Multiply the weight in grams times the fineness of the metal. (Pure metal is .999, sterling is .925, coin metal is .900; gold is expressed in carats of 24 parts). Look on the edge: the exact fineness is required to be marked in some way since the beginning of the 20th century.
Then multiply that number by the daily price of that metal to learn bullion value of your medal (on that day). You should keep in mind that value when calculating any other value. Bullion value is the price of the precious metal once it is melted and available for reuse.
If you have inherited a medal from a family member, your medal has sentimental value to you and often to other family members. To some this may be priceless, other family members could care less. Generally people keep medals their parents received.
Medals won by grandparents become of less interest – as are those of prior generations – and I have learned these are the medals family members are likely to dispose of. So medals of, say, fifty years of age are often to be found on the “secondary market.”
This is the secondary market, what is called the “current market value.” Its true definition is what a willing seller and a willing buyer would agree to when neither are under pressure. Thus the only market for medals is what a collector would pay for it as a specimen for his or her collection. (There is another market – museums – but more often they would want the medal donated.)
So, what are the factors a collector considers when he wants to buy a medal for his collection? There are so many. Most important, perhaps, is subject matter – what is the theme of the medal. How attractive. Artist. Condition. Who made it. Perhaps size. How mounted. If it was an award medal, who was it awarded to. And a lot of intangibles, like how often does it come on the market, or how many currently available. Others.
I made a list once of the topics medal enthusiasts collect. It ran about 300 topics. Obvious topics are space, aviation, Olympics, medical, presidents, military, naval. Every collector defines his own topic. Nobody tells him what to collect. But it can be quite obscure. One collector organization official I knew collected only trolley medals, but only from Philadelphia, and only before 1900. I think he had all three of them!
Since there have been thousands – millions – of different medals made since 1438, with Pisanello’s first Renaissance medal, you get a sense of the vast field collectors have to choose from. Two topics have a greater supply than there are collectors, religious and sports. Thus these don’t have a high value, but could have factors that do increase their value.
To adequately learn a value anyone who makes an appraisal must see the medal. He will look at things like the highpoints for wear, the edgelettering for clues on composition and maker. He will feel the edges, is it free of nicks? He might test for its ring – is it cast or struck?
So appraising medals is not an exact science. The best medal appraisers are medal dealers who constantly buy and sell, and must be on top of the market in medals. Collectors are fickle, fashions in collecting change. Often these dealers are specialists, since the field is so vast.
In all there may be a dozen or two full time medal dealers in America. And one full-time medal auction house. Auction prices are the absolute closest thing to a current market collector value. But the same medal in the same auction may sell for a different price – other factors may have influence the value.
So ask around. You can show your medal to a local coin dealer. He can tell you condition, but he probably won’t know the value. Ask the coin dealer to recommend someone who would know. Chances are he will recommend someone in another city. Write or email that medal dealer. Send a photo or scan. Describe width, edgelettering, and color (if you don’t know exactly what composition).
The medal dealer may ask you to send the medal for further inspection. It could mean the difference between a few dollars and many hundreds of dollars. You may have a medal of great interest to a medal collector.
This is highest value of all. It is based on “replacement cost” – buying a similar medal plus all the costs incurred in finding and acquiring the replacement medal. In addition to money, it might require a length of time to acquire a similar specimen. After all, you might have to influence another collector to part with one from his collection!