Within this collecting field is a wide variety, usually involving the Second World War when along with regular troops, a bewildering array of ad hoc and hastily organised formations roamed around or raided occupied territories.
“Special forces medals are very popular with collectors because the men who won them served with elite units that have always had a special glamour,” says Pierce Noonan, a director of London auction house Dix Noonan Webb (20% buyer’s premium).
“They often showed the most extraordinary bravery and endurance during the operations for which these medals were awarded. While medals to the SAS and the SBS are generally the most in demand, any awards to special forces command a premium.”
More regular units that took part in daring raids in relatively small numbers also create demand.
A good example emerged in DNW’s March 1-2 auction when a Conspicuous Gallantry Medal group of six awarded to Sgt John Povall of the 11th Bn, Royal Marines, sold for a top-estimate £26,000 to a private collector. Povall took part in Operation Agreement in September 1944 at Tobruk in North Africa, clearing several machine-gun nests at bayonet point until captured after being hopelessly outnumbered.
“Povall’s medal group ticked a number of boxes for bidders,” Noonan says. “His CGM was one of only seven awarded to the Royal Marines during the Second World War and the Tobruk raid was particularly heroic, albeit largely unsuccessful.
“Add to this the fact that there is evidence from a letter sold with the medals that Povall narrowly missed out on a Victoria Cross and it was a very desirable lot indeed.”
As with special forces, the appeal of secret agents to auction houses includes publicity opportunities and applying a touch of James Bond always helps media interest, as Matthew Tredwen of C&T Auctioneers acknowledges.
Assassination pen daggers, Swiss Army-style escape knives and so on are guaranteed to grab a journalist’s attention – including ATG.
Eight Special Operations Executive (SOE) ‘escape and evasion’ lots featured in the C&T February 14 Military collectables sale. They were consigned as part of a large group belonging to an 82-year-old collector, who was looking to downsize and was tempted to try the Kent auction house after monitoring recent results.
Consigning with C&T certainly paid off. “We had a pre-sale estimate on this part of his collection of about £4000,” Tredwen says. “The vendor ended up coming away with nearly £30,000 and he was over the moon.”
Tredwen admits he had estimated conservatively but was still surprised by the results. “Prices realised for some of the SOE stuff were just incredible.”
The assassination pen dagger sold for £7000 against an estimate of £300-500. The 3in (7.5cm) blade was concealed inside the body of a fountain pen given to SOE agents to carry in occupied territories and to resistance fighters. These daggers were produced by MI9 and issued to SOE for use as assassination weapons or for sabotage. Some had the functions of a fountain pen.
A special forces/SOE/OSS escape utility knife sold for £1600 (estimate £500-1000). It features two small hacksaw blades, a small tyre slasher blade and a larger blade. To the end of the knife is a wire cutter tool.
An SOE agent’s ‘concealment key’ made £3200 on an estimate of just £100-200. The end screws off to reveal a hollow centre which could be used to smuggle out messages, or hide a compass perhaps.
Even a simple but grisly SOE/ commando garotte wire sold for £3200 (estimate £60-100). “We sold one of those two years ago for about £180 and I was over the moon for the vendor when we got that price,” Tredwen adds. “So for this one to make £3200 was crazy really.”