As we write this in the Spring of 2012 the Stolen Valor Law is being tested in state courts as it is headed for a final determination in the U.S. Supreme Court this summer. It’s a law that makes it illegal to state a person has received decorations of valor or other military medals — or to wear these – that they have not won, and to do this for some personal gain.
President George W. Bush signed this into law in 2005. It strengthened a previous regulation (U.S. Code 18, paragraph 704) prohibiting these medal activities by unauthorized people. For example, Wikipedia reports in June 2006 there were 120 living recipients of the Medal of Honor, but over a thousand people have made such fraudulent statements of its bestowal to them.
Veteran organizations strongly support the legislation – rightly so – to preserve the honor bestowed to deserving recipients. Any activity by civilians or even former military personnel that denigrate this honor is unwanted. Most often, it is such veterans organization who make the complaints of unauthorized use by undeserving people.
This gave rise to the term “stolen valor,” in the United States. In England, under similar situations, the term for such a miscreant was a “medal cheat!”
Collectors organizations, on the other hand, believe the law went too far. It limited the sale or trade of existing decorations. In the past military decoration collectors circumvented the restrictions by exchanging a minor medal when purchasing a more expensive one. This gradually diminished to a purchase for cash and, say, a postage stamp, for a desired decoration.
Purple Hearts, for example had a collector value of $45 and there has always been an active market for these and other U.S. and foreign decorations. The U.S. Code made no mention of what should be done with military decorations in a deceased veterans estate. These are legitimate artifacts documenting a person’s military achievements. They have value as museum pieces – or to private collectors – if not retained by the veterans family.
And what collector, or medal dealer – this writer included – once he had possession of a decorations on a chain, or a sash, has not placed this around his own neck. That act is wearing a decoration in unauthorized fashion. But most collectors who venerate such objects would never wear this outside his own office or home. He has great respect for the person who did, indeed, deserve receiving this award.
Examples of fraudulent use include the family who acquired military medals at flea markets and “awarded” these to their youngster for good behavior. While this may be a commendable act of parenting, it was certainly not the intended use of these medals. This occurred before 2005. Under previous restrictions they were fined and changed their way of child commendation.
Two more recent cases, one in California and one in Colorado, have considered this situation and both have been dismissed based on the first amendment. While these have been declared unconstitutional, Wikipedia states: “legal scholars are all not in agreement that lying should have constitutional protection.”
The decision by the U.S. Supreme Court depends on their interpretation of the first amendment. Do citizens have the right to lie under the concept of Free Speech. If so, then can an exception be made for recipients of an honor so desired that others are willing to lie about it and bask in the honor reserved for those who legitimately won that honor?
This writer believes the law should be upheld, but the restrictions for buying and selling existing decorations should be permissible among collectors.
Case number two. In 2009 the esteemed British Museum mounted an exhibit “Medals of Dishonor.” This took its name from a series of 15 medals, created prior to 1940 by American sculptor David Smith.
It was described in its exhibition statement: “Medals are best known for celebrating important figures or heroic deeds, but this unique exhibition features medals that condemn their subjects. The display exposes the long and rich tradition of this darker side of medals.”
The exhibit featured the David Smith medals which were inspired by the rise of fascism during the 1930s, and by the German war medals he saw at the British Museum. He modeled these in the shape of Sumerian seals he had studied in Greece and named the series of 15 oval medallions “Medals of Dishonor.”
In addition there was a companion piece by Marcel Duchamp I will speak of in a minute. To flesh out the exhibit, British medallic artists were invited to submit contemporary examples of their creation. Sixteen artists responded, most all members of the British Art Medal Trust. The artist’ medals were donated to the BM for their permanent collections.
Historical medals covering a 400-year period were also on display, satirical and political medals with themes ranging from bizarre to scatological. One medal from 1915 shows the figure of Death happily smoking while seated on a cannon, a city in flames in the background.
It typified many expressing the horror and brutality of war.
What brought this all to mind this week was an inquiry from a fellow collector in Boston. He had befriended a curator in France and the pair had an active correspondence. The curator had learned of that Marcel Duchamp “medal” and wanted to obtain a specimen for his institution.
Here is how Duchamp’s medal, called a bouche-evier, was described from a review of that show:
“Fittingly, Marcel Duchamp supplies the ultimate reduction of the medal’s function as an indicator of superior status with his piece Sink Stopper (1964-67). Modelled in clay from the perforated drain of a porcelain shower tray and then cast by the artist in lead that he had melted in a saucepan, this “medal” was originally nothing more than an answer to a plumbing problem.
“Duchamp liked to soak his feet, but the shower tray leaked. A couple of years later he was invited by an American company to strike a medallion. Just as he had pissed on the inflated claims made for art with his 1917 urinal, he now couldn’t resist offering the stopper, which was subsequently cast in silver, bronze and stainless steel and circulated as an ‘original limited edition Medallic Sculpture.’
“As a comment on the aesthetic and political range of choices available in the medium, nothing in this exhibition can touch it.”
The American company mentioned in that description was International Numismatic Agency, a client of Medallic Art Company, and a major producer for the owner, Neil Cooper. Fortunately Medallic Art did not make those Sink Stoppers for Mr. Cooper.
The three pages from my files on this issue document the effort Cooper extended to market this “medal.” He advertised in Art in America, it also carried a half page article in their July-August 1969 issue.
He saw that the “medal” was in prominent museums, including the Museum of Modern Art, the Smithsonian Institution Numismatic Collection, Bowdoin College Art Museum were named in his literature.
A final statement: “Mr. Lawrence Alloway, former curator of the Guggenheim Museum acted as artistic consultant for this project.”
It is still a Sink Stopper.
This writer holds medals and medallic art to the highest standards. I relish satire and satirical medals. But there is a line below which I would not approve of the misuse of medallic art to advance some misguided individual’s sense of satire by calling it a medal.
You may form your own opinion.