Morton and Eden Set World Auction Record

by James Morton

Sold! A spirited afternoon of bidding at the Morton & Eden auction house.

Russian buyers fight to repatriate their country’s heroic past

On Thursday, October 26, 2006, London specialist auctioneers Morton & Eden established a new world-record auction for a single-owner collection of orders, medals, and decorations, when a sale on behalf of the American Numismatic Society raised a total of £2,062,531. This two-day sale was the second part of a sale of portions of the ANS collection. When added to the £1,033,459 raised by part 1 of the sale, held by Morton & Eden in May of this year, the total swells to £3,095,990, which represents an auction world record for medal properties from a single source. A third sale from the same collection on behalf of the ANS will take place in the spring of 2007, raising the benchmark yet further.

“This week’s sale was astonishing, with collectors prepared to pay amazing prices,” said auctioneer James Morton. “Never before has such quality and quantity been brought to auction or with such splendid provenance as the ANS collection. That, coupled with the incredible rarity of many of the pieces on offer, meant buyers had the utmost confidence in bidding. The result was the most valuable single-owner collection that has ever been sold at auction—with more to come.”

The sales are being conducted on behalf of the American Numismatic Society, which, from the late nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth century, accumulated a large collection of world campaign and gallantry medals, orders, and decorations. In recent decades, the Society has gradually refocused its priorities, concentrating on its role as a museum of money and related artifacts, moving into new headquarters near Wall Street in Manhattan, and partnering with the Federal Reserve Bank of New York to create a major exhibition about the history of coins and currency.

Dr. Ute Wartenberg Kagan, Executive Director of the New York-based ANS, attended the sale and was delighted by the outcome. “The results achieved both this week and in the previous sales will greatly enhance our buying power in the future and we are grateful for the support shown by collectors and dealers.”

It was the Russian section, sold on the afternoon of the first day, Wednesday, October 25, that produced most of the highest prices. Buyers were mostly Russian collectors or dealers buying on behalf of collectors, and they often bid up to ten times the estimated value in order to repatriate examples of the orders, medals, and decorations awarded to citizens during historic and heroic events of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

A very fine and rare gold and enamel sash badge by Julius Kebel of St. Petersburg and dated 1865, one of the few surviving examples of the Order of St. Andrew, was purchased by a Russian private buyer for a record £109,250 after a lengthy bidding battle with other collectors in the crowded saleroom. It had been expected to fetch £12,000 to £15,000. The first and highest order of chivalry of the Russian Empire, the order was one of only one thousand awarded before its abolition following the Russian Revolution in 1917. It had been established in 1698 by Tsar Peter the Great in honor of St. Andrew, the patron saint of Russia, and was awarded only for the most eminent civilian or military merit.

Recipients of the Order of St. Andrew also automatically received the Order of St. Alexander Nevsky, and another Russian buyer paid £69,000 for a very fine and equally rare example. The order was established in Russia by Catherine I in 1725 in memory of the deeds of Alexander Nevsky, who rose to legendary status on account of his military victories over Western aggressors. The silver-gilt breast star had been estimated at £8,000 to £12,000.

The same buyer paid the same amount for a Grand Cross breast star in gold and enamel from the Order of St. Anne, Civil Division, which had been estimated at £4,000 to £5,000. The order was established by Duke Charles Frederick in 1735 and named for his wife, the Grand Duchess Anna Petrovna of Russia, daughter of Peter the Great.

An example of the Order of the White Eagle of exceptional quality, which was expected to sell for £12,000 to £15,000, also sold to a Russian buyer for £59,800. Of reduced size, intended to be worn at the neck, the order was instituted by Augustus the Strong of Poland in 1705 and become a Russian Imperial Order following the absorption of Poland into Russia in 1831.

The Russian section alone raised a total of £1,285,475.

The highest price among a strong selection of British orders, medals, and decorations was the £55,200 paid by an English private collector for a “blue ribbon” Naval-issue Victoria Cross awarded in 1858 to George Bell Chicken for his valor during the Indian Mutiny. A volunteer with the Indian Naval Brigade, Chicken was one of only five civilians ever to be honored with Britain’s premier gallantry award. The medal has the unusual status of being an original but unawarded VC, while a duplicate but official Cross was duly presented to Chicken’s father, after his son was lost at sea in 1860.

A rare Naval General Service medal with two clasps—“Indefatigable 20 April 1796” and “Indefatigable 13 Jany 1797”—awarded to Volunteer 1st Class John Harry sold for £48,300 against an estimate of £20,000 to £25,000. Only approximately eight of each clasp to the medal were awarded. In C. S. Forester’s novels, Mr. Harry has the famous fictional shipmate Midshipman Hornblower. Forester’s hero joins the HMS Indefatigable at exactly the same period as Harry, becoming embroiled in adventures at least partially based on fact.

An Army Gold Medal awarded to Captain Francis Scott, a casualty at the Battle of San Sebastian in 1813, sold to a private collector for £25,300, against an estimate of £8,000 to £12,000.

New York dealer Stack paid £21,850 for a very rare gold and enamel Principal King of Arms Badge, circa 1820, with Hanoverian shield.

Sales from the British section of the auction raised £477,836.

Turkish orders, medals, and decorations were also highly sought after, eighty lots adding £60,950 to the total where just £20,000 was anticipated, while the entire morning of the first day’s sale was devoted to Germany, which raised £220,420. Here, a particularly fine example of the Prussian Pour Le Mérite gallantry medal, better known by its nickname, the “Blue Max,” sold to a private lady collector for £14,950. It had been estimated at £6,000 to £8,000.