The Victoria Cross at Auction Part I: 1856-1983
The Victoria Cross at Auction Part 1: 1856-1983
'We have instituted and created a New Naval and Military Decoration, to be styled and designated the "Victoria Cross", which We are desirous should be highly prized and eagerly sought after…'
It is now 154 years since the institution of the Victoria Cross as the supreme decoration for gallantry back in 1856, over which time has been awarded to 1,353 individuals. The first investiture took place in Hyde Park amid great fanfare on the 26th June 1857, when 62 of the then 93 recipients to date received their Crosses from Queen Victoria. By 1860 almost 300 Victoria Crosses had been awarded, and within a few years they were finding their way into private collections. Inevitably, it was not too long before they began appearing at auction.
The first Victoria Cross ever to be offered for sale at public auction, at Sotheby's on the 21st February 1879, was the Crimea V.C. to Private Charles McCorrie, 57th Foot, which surprisingly failed to sell- a rare occurrence in today's market. Five years later a further two V.C.s were offered for sale at Sotheby's (5th May 1884), as part of the Major Whalley Collection. The first (Lot 143) was the Victoria Cross to Seaman Thomas Reeves, awarded for gallantry at the Battle of Inkermann, which sold to a Mr. Holland for £26. The second Cross (Lot 186), awarded to Corporal William Dowling, 32nd Light Infantry, for gallantry on three separate occasions during the Indian Mutiny, together with 'replacement' Punjab and Mutiny medals, and a silver engraved presentation plate, sold for £11. Two years later, on 9th February 1886, a further two Crosses appeared at auction. Lot 218 was the award to Gunner William Connolly, Bengal Horse Artillery, for gallantry at Jhelum on 7 July 1857. This was bought by Mr. Charles Winter, the newly appointed head of the Medal Department at Spink (a position he would hold for the next 47 years), for £10. The next lot was the V.C. to Lance Corporal John Sinnott, 84th Regiment, for gallantry at Lucknow on 6 October 1857, which sold to a Mr. Partridge £23.10/-. In the same sale in 1886, Waterloo Medals were realising around 10/- each. The first complete V.C. group to appear at auction was that to Lance Sergeant Philip Smith, 17th Regiment, sold as part of the Captain E Hyde Greg Collection. The sale was considered exceptional and the catalogue was the first to provide an appendix containing 'notes and details referring to the lives and services of recipients of some of the medals and orders in the collection'. This Cross was awarded for 'repeatedly going out in front of the advance trenches against the Great Redan on 18 June 1855'. His other awards comprised the Crimea Medal with clasp Sebastopol; the French Médaille Militaire, and the Turkish Crimea medal- the group selling to regular buyer Mr. Partridge for £18.10/-.
Also in 1886 The V.C. group to Troop Sergeant Major John Berryman, 17th Lancers appeared at auction. Berryman was awarded his V.C. for rescuing a wounded officer during the Charge of the Light Brigade at Balaklava, during the Crimean War. Today this would be considered very much a 'classic', and as probably the best known 'Charge V.C.' would enhance any collection, yet it realised only £10, probably due to the fact that both the Cross and campaign medals suffered from 'heavy contact marks from years of faithful cavalry service'. Medal collecting was still in its infancy, with most serious collectors then subscribing to the well established numismatic view that condition was paramount (indeed some medal lists, almost a century later, still omitted to name the recipients of more commonly encountered campaign medals for sale, on the grounds that it hardly had a bearing on the price). Yet the success of the Hyde Greg Collection had started a trend for greater research into the recipient's career, and on the 2nd August 1894 a second V.C. group to a Light Brigade Charger appeared for sale. Fully researched, the Victoria Cross to Lieutenant Alexander Dunn, 11th Hussars, who was later killed during the Abyssinia Campaign (one of only two men killed during that Campaign) sold for the then colossal sum of £155, a record price that would last for the next twenty-five years.
In 1900 Debenham's sold the only V.C. awarded for gallantry not in the presence of the enemy. Although the V.C. Warrant had been extended back in August 1858 to allow such awards, following the devastating fire aboard the troopshipSarah Sands,in which much bravery was shown by the crew, no V.C. had been awarded under this Warrant until 1867, when Private Timothy O'Hea, Rifle Brigade, was honoured for gallantly extinguishing single-handedly a fire in an ammunition car during the Canadian troubles of 1866. The Army's recommendation met with much War Office disapproval, but in the end the Army won, and O'Hea Cross was duly gazetted. In 1881 the War Office succeeded in getting a new Warrant published, cancelling the previous one, and stating that the sole qualification for the award shall be bravery or devotion to duty 'in the presence of the enemy.' Although the phrase 'in the presence of the enemy' has often been interpreted fairly loosely over the years, O'Hea's V.C. remains unique, and realised £57 at auction.
The V.C. to Private Thomas Duffy, awarded for gallantry at Lucknow during the Indian Mutiny, appeared at auction twice in the first decade of the 20th Century, selling for £53 in 1902, and £60 in 1910, a fair reflection on how the medal market was steadily expanding in the Edwardian age, with a greater number of collectors involved in the hobby. By the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 the Victoria Cross had been awarded to 522 recipients, of which 111 were for the Crimea 1854-56; 182 for the Indian Mutiny 1857-58; 78 for the South African War 1899-1902; with the remaining 151 for some 37 smaller Wars, Campaigns, and Expeditions, stretching chronologically from the Persian Campaign in 1856 to the Tibetan Expedition in 1904, and covering five continents. 58 of them had been offered for sale at public auction, and not surprisingly, in view of when the majority of the awards were gazetted, 26 were for the Crimea and 23 for the Indian Mutiny. The first V.C. awarded outside these two conflicts to be offered for sale at auction was that to O'Hea, as described above, in 1900; six years later, on the 21st June 1906, Sotheby's offered for sale two Zulu War Victoria Crosses. The first was that to Private Francis Fitzpatrick, 94th Foot (later 2nd Battalion Connaught Rangers), awarded for gallantry during the attack on Sekukuni's Town in November 1879. Unfortunately Fitzpatrick's original V.C. was lost in action when fighting against the Boers in 1881, and an official replacement was sent out to him in June 1881. Shortly afterwards, his original V.C. was found in the personal effects of a soldier in his rifle company who had been killed, and reunited with him, with the replacement being returned to the War Office. Fitzpatrick's original V.C. and South Africa Medal realised £42 in the 1906 sale, and were bought by Lieutenant-Colonel H.F.N. Jourdain, the Commanding Officer of the Connaught Rangers, and the first recorded example of a Regiment buying a former soldier's V.C. at auction.
The second Cross in the sale was the famous Rorke's Drift V.C. to Corporal William Allen, 24th Foot, one of eleven awarded for the epic defence on the 22nd-23rd January 1879, the most given for a single action. On the day it realised £72, about average for 'good' V.C. at the time, although one suspects that if it were to be offered for sale now it would realise significantly more than today's average.
The first V.C. from the Boer War to be sold at auction was that to Private George Ravenhill, Royal Scots Fusiliers, on the 15th December 1908, awarded for saving the guns at Colenso, alongside Lieutenant Roberts, son of Field Marshal the Lord Roberts, exactly nine years earlier. Surprisingly, given the relatively small gap between action and sale, the fact that this was the first Boer War V.C. to appear on the market, and the fact that the Cross was awarded for one of the most celebrated and emotive actions of the War, the sale was hardly a success, with the lot realising only £42, the lowest hammer price for 15 years. Yet the result was perhaps not that unexpected. To the late Victorian and Edwardian medal collector there were only three significant conflicts worth pursuing- the Napoleonic and Crimean Wars, and the Indian Mutiny. Indeed, for many years the Army Lists preceded officers' names with a gothic 'P', 'W', 'C', or 'M' to denote service in the Peninsula, at Waterloo, in the Crimea, or during the Mutiny respectively. A good Zulu or Boer War V.C., no matter how impressive, did not fit most of the era's top-end collections, dominated as they were by Peninsula Gold Medal and Waterloo groups. Of the five other Crosses awarded for actions outside the Crimea and Mutiny conflicts that appeared at auction before 1914, for New Zealand, Matabeleland, Persia, Maiwand, and South Africa, only the Persian V.C., awarded to Captain John Wood, Bengal Artillery, excelled, realising £101 at Sotheby's in 1910.
The last Cross sold before the outbreak of War was that to Stoker William Johnstone, H.M.S.Arrogant, Royal Navy, the third-ever Victoria Cross to be awarded. Johnstone was awarded the V.C., along with Lieutenant John Bythesea, for taking part in a daring two-man mission to capture Russian despatches in the Baltic theatre of the Crimean War. After spending three days scouting the area, assisted by the fact that Johnstone spoke Swedish, the local language, and armed only with a single flint pistol between the two of them, Bythesea and Johnstone captured the Russian despatches and took three of the enemy prisoner. Whilst the circumstances of the V.C. action are well known, the background of William Johnstone is though subject to some debate. Although he was gazetted thus, there was no one onArrogant'smuster list of this name. There was a Leading Stoker John Johnstone, who was born in Hanover, Germany, on the ship at the time, and this is the man usually credited with winning the Victoria Cross. However, it is doubtful that he would have spoken Swedish. It is possible therefore that Lieutenant Bythesea's companion was one of the foreign nationals that had been recruited from Stockholm, on the way to the Baltic, to solve the problem of an under-strength crew, and that Johnstone was an anglicised version of Johanssen. Despite this, Johnstone's V.C., the earliest one awarded to thus far come up for auction, sold for £70.
With no Victoria Crosses appearing at auction during the Great War, it was not until the 23rd May 1919 that the collecting public had their chance to bid on one again. By now, the number awarded had more than doubled after four years of bloody conflict, rising from 522 to 1,148. However, this 'dilution' to the market did not appear to affect prices, and the Mutiny V.C. to Private Patrick Donohoe, 9th Lancers, sold for £118. The following month the fine Crimean V.C. group to Lieutenant (later Captain) George Day, Royal Navy, together with the recipient's C.B., Legion of Honour, and Order of Medjidieh, sold for a new world record price of £235, a figure destined to remain in the record books until 1955. This in many ways was the highlight of the inter-War years, a period in which just 28 Victoria Crosses were sold at auction (of which 8 were sold in one extraordinary Glendining's sale over three days from the 16th-18th July 1930), for an average price of just £77. Of these 28, 17 were for the Indian Mutiny, 9 for the Crimea, and one for the Egyptian Campaign of 1882, to Private Frederick Corbett, Kings' Royal Rifle Corps. The final Victoria Cross to appear at auction in this period was that to Private William Griffiths, 24th Foot, for the Andaman Islands Expedition of 1867. Stretching the condition that the V.C. had to be awarded 'in the presence of the enemy' to the limit, Griffiths was one of five men of his regiment who risked his life in manning a boat and rowing through dangerous waves in the Bay of Bengal to rescue seven of the crew of the shipAssam Valleywho were held prisoner by the cannibalistic native islanders on Little Andaman Island. Tragically, Griffiths was later killed in action at Isandhlwana during the Zulu War.
During the period 1919 to 1939 a further 10 Victoria Crosses were awarded, as well as the posthumous Cross bestowed by King George V upon the United States Unknown Warrior. The Second World War saw a further 181 Victoria Crosses won, bringing the total by 1945 to 1,340. One Victoria Cross was sold at auction during the Second World War (unlike during the Great War the London auction houses attempted to operate as normal), a Crimean V.C. to Private Anthony Palmer, Grenadier Guards, which realised £92.
The first V.C. to appear at auction after the Second World War was the award to Midshipman Edward Daniel, Royal Navy. Daniel, aged just 17 at the time, had won the Cross whilst serving with the Naval Brigade in the Crimea. Under the terms of the 1856 Warrant, the V.C. could be forfeited if the holder was 'convicted of Treason, Cowardice, Felony, or of any infamous crime, or if he be accused of any such offence and doth not after a reasonable time surrender himself to be tried for the same.' In 1861 Daniel was the first man (of to date 8) to forfeit the V.C. after he was arrested for sodomy with four subordinate officers. The Admiralty papers record that he was 'accused of a disgraceful offence' and had deserted to evade inquiry. He fled to New Zealand, where he died drunken and dissolute in 1868. Those who forfeited the V.C. were also required to surrender the decoration itself, although it would appear that Daniel never did. In 1908 the Treasury Solicitor advised the War Office that this was illegal, as the medal remained the property of the recipient. Despite, or perhaps because of, this notoriety, Daniel's V.C. sold for £110 at Glendining's on the 18th June 1947.
The first of the Great War Victoria Crosses to appear for sale at auction was on the 4th March 1953, when Christie's sold the V.C., M.M. group to Sergeant Frederick Riggs, York and Lancaster Regiment, who had been awarded a posthumous Cross for the capture of a German machine-gun post on the Western Front in October 1918. There were high hopes for a record price, but in the end it was not to be, the lot selling for £180, making it the third highest selling V.C. at auction to date. However, although this was still a good price at the time, the medal market was rapidly changing, and as Britain emerged from the post-War austerity so prices rapidly increased. The next four Crosses to appear at auction all brought new world record prices, and as fate would have it no V.C. would subsequently sell for less than the Riggs group.
The first of this run of record-breaking Crosses was the Zulu War V.C. group to Surgeon-Major Edmund Hartley, Cape Mounted Riflemen, for tending to the wounded in the open under heavy enemy fire. This was the first V.C. to a non-combatant to appear at auction, and the £300 that it realised at Sotheby's on the 17th March 1955 was a testament to the recipient's bravery and cold courage. The last in this run, and the second Great War V.C. to appear at auction, was that to Corporal Roland Elcock, Royal Scots, who was awarded his Cross for capturing an enemy machine-gun post on the Western Front in October 1918. The award appears very similar to that of Riggs, and whilst Elcock would serve in the Second World War and reach the rank of Major, Riggs' Cross was a posthumous one to man who had already been awarded the Military Medal. The sale of the Elcock V.C. in April 1858 for £650, five years after the Riggs V.C. had only made £180, shows how quickly the market was growing at the time.
Although a Military decoration, the V.C. has in its history been awarded to five civilians, four during the Indian Mutiny, and once during the Second Afghan War. The first of these to appear at auction, at Sotheby's in July 1964, was the Cross to Mr. Thomas Kavanagh, Bengal Civil Service, who was awarded the V.C. for his bravery in going through the city of Lucknow whilst disguised as a sepoy to the camp of the relieving force outside the city, so that he could then guide them to the beleaguered garrison in the Residency. Whilst aspects of Kavanagh's mission appear farcical from today's perspective, the outcome was the successful relief of Lucknow, and in a city in which 60 Victoria Crosses were won it would be hard to dispute Kavanagh's gallantry, his V.C. selling for £750. 1964 also saw the sale of the first thousand pound V.C. at auction, when, on the 16th November, Glendining's sold the superb Gallipoli V.C. to Lieutenant William Forshaw, Manchester Regiment, for £1,150.
The following year on the 29th November 1965, Sotheby's offered for sale the Zulu War V.C. pair to Private Thomas Flawn, 94th Foot, who had been awarded the V.C. alongside Private Francis Fitzpatrick (see above) for gallantry during the attack on Sekukuni's Town in November 1879. After spirited bidding in the room the lot was sold to the medal dealer John Hayward for £720, the first of many Victoria Crosses that he would buy and sell over the next 45 years. The following year a Victoria Cross appeared at auction in most unusual circumstances. Lord Edric Gifford had been awarded the V.C. during the Ashantee War of 1873-74, and for many years his Cross had been assumed lost. It was only after a library desk had appeared for sale at Christie' in 1966, 'including contents', that the Cross was discovered locked in a small drawer. Whilst the subsequent sale of the V.C. by a London dealer is outside the scope of this article, suffice it to say that it was an unexpected windfall for the purchaser.
Since the Second World War the Victoria Cross has been awarded on only 13 occasions. The first of these to appear at auction was that to Lieutenant Philip Curtis, Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry, attached Gloucestershire Regiment, awarded posthumously for gallantry in taking out an enemy machine gun post during the Glosters retreat at Imjin River during the Korean War. Ordered to counter-attack against the highest commanding position on Castle Hill where the Cjinese had set up a mobile machine gun position, Curtis took twenty men with him and advanced over open ground completely devoid of cover. Three men were killed before 20 yards were covered, four more were wounded seconds later, with Curtis hit in his left side and right arm. Shaking off restraining hands he continued to advance alone. Once he fell, but he got back to his feet by a supreme effort and continued in a lone charge, leaving a trail of blood as he went. The machine gun emptied its last burst into his sagging body- but too late to prevent the destruction of the post by grenades he had thrown into the bunker. Huge media interest was generated in the sale at Sotheby's in February 1975, and in the end the lot was bought by John Hayward for a new world record price of £7,200. Unbeknown to John, he was bidding against the Colonel of Curtis's Regiment, which was made clear to both parties after the sale, when they appeared on the BBC News together. The Regiment was clearly disappointed not to have been able to acquire the Cross, and in a magnanimous gesture John agreed to make the lot over to the Regiment for the price that he had originally paid for it, at no profit to himself. The following morning the Daily Telegraph reported this exchange on their front page, under the headline 'Honour, and the Regiment'.
The first of the 181 Second World War Victoria Crosses to appear at public auction was not until 1982, when, on the 4th March, Sotheby's sold the awards to Company Sergeant Major Stanley Hollis, Green Howards, who was awarded the first V.C. of the land invasion of Europe, and the only one given for the D-Day landings. Amongst the first to land on Gold Beach on the 6th June, 1944, Hollis' Company's immediate objective was the capture of the enemy's four 150mm guns overlooking the beach. Their route lay 500 yards up a narrow track, at the end of which he spotted a sunken pillbox. Suddenly the enemy opened fire. Hollis rushed forward firing his Sten gun and before the surprised occupants could respond he was on the roof above them. Replacing his magazine and arming a grenade, he crossed to locate the doorway below before bombing it and rushing inside, Sten gun blazing. Two of the enemy were killed, three wounded, and five more surrendered. He had saved his Company from being badly hit in the rear, enabling it to neutralise the battery, and open the main beach exit. Later that day he helped disable another enemy gun placement, again saving many lives. Wounded three days later, he was returned to Britain, and was invested by King George VI at Buckingham Palace in October 1944, later remarking: 'What I did was nothing to do with courage. I just got mad at seeing all my mates go down around me.' Not surprisingly, Stan Hollis' medals fetched a record £32,000.
It is interesting to note that, of the five conflicts in which more than fifty Victoria Crosses were awarded, the first Crimean V.C. appeared at auction 23 years after it was awarded (and failed to sell); the first Mutiny V.C. after 26 years; the first Boer War V.C. after just 9 years; the first Great War V.C. after 35 years, and the first Second War V.C. appeared at auction 38 years after it was awarded. If we expand the cut-off point to include those conflicts in which more than a dozen were awarded, the first New Zealand Wars V.C. appeared at auction 44 years after it was awarded; the first Zulu War V.C. after 27 years; and the first Second Afghan War V.C. after 33 years. Indeed, with the exception of the Crosses to Private George Ravenhill, mentioned above, and the Boer War V.C. to Sergeant Alfred Atkinson, Yorkshire Regiment, for gallantry at Paardeberg, which sold at Glendining's in November 1911, no V.C. for any conflict has successfully sold at auction within 25 years of the date of the award.
Of the 32 Victoria Crosses awarded to the Royal Air Force during the Second World War, just one was awarded to the 3,080 pilots of Fighter Command whose raw courage achieved victory in the Battle of Britain. Flight Lieutenant James Nicolson joined the Royal Air Force in December 1936, and following the outbreak of War in 1939 flew a number of operational sorties, though saw no combat action. Finally, in August 1940, his Squadron was sent south to Boscombe Down, Wiltshire, to join in the desperate defence of the south of England against the onslaught of the Luftwaffe. On the 16th August, 1940, Nicolson took off from Boscombe Down, with orders to patrol the Poole-Ringwood-Salisbury airspace. This was to be his baptism of fire in aerial combat. Flying at 18,000 feet over Southampton's suburbs, Nicolson's Hurricane was suddenly hit by a burst of cannon shells by a section of Messerschmitt Bf109 fighters. He was in deadly peril. Of the four cannon shells which scored direct hits on his Hurricane, one tore through the cockpit canopy and drove a shard of perspex through his left eyelid; a second hit the fuselage petrol tank, setting it on fire; a third smashed through the cockpit side, tearing his leg to bits; whilst the fourth wounded him in the foot. With blood obscuring his vision from his left eye, the pain in his leg and foot, and a petrol flames erupting in front of him, Nicolson prepared painfully to take to his parachute, when he suddenly spotted another Messerschmitt in front of him. Seeing red, he got back into his seat, and started firing. The German pilot tried to evade the Hurricane's fire, but Nicolson, oblivious to all else, was totally determined to destroy his victim. The flames by now had turned his cockpit into a furnace, and he realised that he could not survive much longer. Giving the enemy one final burst from all eight of his guns, he evacuated and parachuted to land. He had been in the air just 47 minutes. Rushed to Southampton Hospital, his life hung in the balance for several days and nights. Finally, in November, whilst convalescing at Torquay Hospital, he received a telegram from King George VI informing him of the award of the V.C. His first words on learning of the award were: 'Now I shall have to go and earn it.'
Nicolson returned to flying duties towards the end of the War, and was killed out in India in May 1945. Circumstances compelled his widow to put his V.C. up for auction in 1983. The Royal Air Force Museum at Hendon was determined to secure them, as was an ex-RAF collector. The Lot was Estimated at £25,000, but this was soon exceeded, with the collector and the Museum taking the bidding up and up. The hammer finally fell at a world record £105,000. It later transpired that the collector was trying to buy the medals to present them to the museum against whom he had unknowingly bid. The nation's war widow's pension had failed Mrs. Nicolson. Instead it took a bidder's oversight to assure her a secure old age.
On the 8th December 1983, almost a century after having bought our first V.C. at auction, Spink decided to hold their first medals auction, having previously been exclusively dealers. In his preface to the sale catalogue Edward Joslin, the head of the Medal Department wrote: 'We are particularly pleased to be able to follow in the successful footsteps of our Coin Department by holding our first Medal sale, and trust that you will enjoy the first catalogue and others to follow.' The final lot of the sale (Lot 404) was the Zulu War V.C. pair to Private Thomas Flawn, 94th Foot. Much interest was generated by collectors and the general public alike by the arrival of Spink on the auction scene, and speculation was rife as to how the market would react. The result of the sale of the Flawn V.C., and the more than 70 Victoria Crosses that we have offered for sale at auction since then, culminating in the four that we sold in our November 2010 sale, will be covered in parts 2 and 3.
Progression of the World Record Price at Auction for a Victoria Cross to 1983:
£26 - Seaman Thomas Reeves, Sotheby's
5th May 1884
£35 - Private James Byrne, Sotheby's
17th June 1893
£50 - Sergeant William McWheeney, Sotheby's
8th February 1894
£155 - Lieutenant Alexander Dunn, Sotheby's
2nd August 1894
£235 - Lieutenant George Day, Glendining's
19th June 1919
£300 - Surgeon Major Edmund Hartley, Sotheby's
17th March 1955
£420 - Assistant Surgeon Thomas Hale, Christie's
13th July 1955
£480 - Second Lieutenant James Craig, Christie's
22nd February 1956
£650 - Corporal Roland Elcock, Christie's
13th April 1958
£720 - Sergeant Charles Parker, Glendining's
27th February 1963
£880 - Lieutenant Walter Hamilton, Glendining's
25th September 1963
£900 - Quartermaster Sergeant William Marshall, Sotheby's
20th April 1964
£1,150 - Lieutenant William Forshaw, Glendining's
16th November 1964
£1,200 - Seaman Mark Scholefield, Glendining's
19th May 1965
£1,950 - Sergeant Edward Mott, Glendining's
3rd March 1967
£2,000 - Sepoy Ishar Singh, Sotheby's
24th June 1970
£3,500 - Able Seaman Edward Robinson, Glendining's
22nd October 1970
£6,000 - Lieutenant Edward Bellow, Sotheby's
5th July 1974
£7,200 - Lieutenant Philip Curtis, Sotheby's
5th February 1975
£7,500 - Private Leonard Keysor, Sotheby's
22nd June 1977
£8,200 - Captain Arthur Henderson, Christie's
4th July 1978
£17,000 - Lieutenant George McKean, Sotheby's
21st March 1979
£27,000 - Private Henry Tandey, Sotheby's
26th November 1980
£32,000 - Company Sergeant Major Stanley Hollis, Sotheby's
4th March 1982
£105,000 - Flight Lieutenant James Nicolson, Glendining's
1st April 1983