Detecting Real from Fakes in Military Medals

Detecting Real from Fakes in Military Medals
If there's been a single cautionary theme in these columns over this past season, it has been the need to watch out for reproductions and fakes in almost every area of collectibles. To take just one area where fakes have come to flood the category, reproduced military medals and badges have become so good as to be almost undetectable. Indeed, many long-time dealers now struggle to tell real from fake, and some have taken the big step of withdrawing from the category altogether to avoid sullying their reputation in the event of an honest error. While some reproductions are made for genuine purposes - museum exhibitions and reenactments being two of the most common - many are simply made to deceive. Let's look at one example: Germany's Iron Cross as awarded during the Second World War.

By way of background, the Iron Cross award was first introduced in 1813 in Prussia during the Napoleonic Wars. It was brought back during WWI and, with the addition of a swastika on the front, again in 1939 by Adolf Hitler. Confusingly, it was issued in three classes - Grand Cross, Knights Cross and Iron Cross - each of which was divided into various series and degrees. Many of these were issued with different ribbons, accessories, and even protocols for how and where they were be worn. The only recipient of the Grand Cross during WWII was Reichmarschall Hermann Goring in 1940. His original medal was destroyed by Allied bombing in 1945 but many reproductions live on.

Of all those, the Iron Cross 2nd Class is by far and away the most common. It was awarded to recognize battlefield performance and some four-and-a-half million were given out during the war. The original medal was constructed of three separate pieces, matte black with silver trim and stoutly made. Its name stems from its iron core and, indeed, one of the easiest (but far from definitive) tests of originality is to test its attraction to a magnet. If the cross is non-magnetic, it is not original.

Beyond that, check to confirm the medal is made of three parts and not simply a stamped disc. Slight pressure on the ends should result in no yield or bend; the originals were made to high standards on equipment generally out of reach to those putting out reproductions. If the ribbon is present, it should be made of cotton. You can check by burning a thread to check for flammability or examining the ribbon under a black ultraviolet light. Man-made fabrics will glow brightly; cotton will not.

Finally, take a hard look at all aspects of the medal with a loop or magnifying glass. All of the raised markings should be sharply struck. If the medal was frequently worn, there may be points at which the iron shows through the plating. Try to see if the overall wear looks natural. Reproduced medals can be easily aged by burying them in the ground or applying various chemicals to erode the finish, but wear due to repeated handling is more difficult to imitate. A most careful inspection may not guaranty authenticity but will at least eliminate some doubt.

Above all, it's always a good idea to buy from dealers whom you know and trust. Even they can make mistakes (as we certainly have) but those that stand behind their representations will give you a level of certainty you probably cannot achieve by yourself. The Iron Cross was issued in more than 20 different iterations and even advanced collectors will struggle to know the intricacies of them all. And this lesson is hardly limited to just medals. These days, imitations abound in categories as diverse as art, ephemera, furniture, glassware, and more. The phrase "Caveat Emptor" ("Buyer Beware") is more relevant than ever.

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