The Numismatic Bibliomania Society



The E-Sylum: Volume 24, Number 22, May 30, 2021, Article 21


Gerry Tebben writes:

"There were two stories in the Wall Street Journal this week that bear on the hobby: One, curiously about Bitcoin and banking before the Civil War and one about the the auction of a Purple Heart. The story is a moving Memorial Day piece on a Marine's effort to return a posthumously awarded Purple Heart to the family. I don't collect military medals, but always and wrongly thought it was illegal to sell them. Auctioneer Bill Panagopulos of Alexander Historical Auctions features prominently in the article, explaining the business of buying and selling historical artifacts. I won't spoil the story for you (It's well worth the read.) but the business part of it should be familiar to everyone in the hobby."

Thanks. I'd seen these stories as well. The cryptocurrency one appears later in this issue. Here's an excerpt of the Purple Heart piece. -Editor

Purple Heart certificate A career in the military is laid out in those medals and ribbons, which can be read like a résumé. Mine show that I've been to Iraq and Afghanistan, that I was awarded a couple of personal-achievement awards, that I saw combat but was never wounded. Even now, when I look at them, that distilled summary of years in uniform, I'm taken back to the places where they were earned and remember the people who were there.

Certain medals, like the Purple Heart, stand out like talismans.

I thought of Gator every so often when passing by a memorial roster somewhere in the nation's capital, scrolling over the lists of war dead posted in a House of Representatives hallway, maybe. But mostly, all that was in the past.

Early this February, I received a message from Charlie Williams, who was a lance corporal on that Golf Company deployment. He had gotten wind that Gator's posthumous Purple Heart certificate, his medals and what was described as the flag that adorned his casket were all for sale through an online auction site called Alexander Historical Auctions.

This strikes me as the kind of thing that's legal, but crummy, he said in an email.

The items had gone missing years ago, through a series of family misfortunes. For years, Gator's mother, Maureen O'Haire, struggled with finances and threats of eviction. Her house caught fire in 2015, destroying nearly everything. The family saved the few things they could, including the urn containing her husband's ashes.

A firefighter who had served with Gator in Fallujah showed up to that blaze, knew where the medals were, and ensured they were recovered.

Maureen died soon after, in 2016, and many of her possessions ended up in a storage unit. In the aftermath of the house fire and then Maureen's death, Gator's siblings never found out what happened to the medals. There seemed to have been a lapse in paying the storage fee, but nobody knew for sure.

His family certainly didn't want them sold and didn't know who was selling them.

The online auction clock was already ticking away when I clicked on the website. The bidding had gotten to a few hundred dollars, inexpensive enough for Gator's friends to come up with, but there were still days left in the bidding. Who knew how high the price might go?

The oldest award
The Purple Heart is the country's oldest military award, first given by Gen. George Washington to troops during the Revolutionary War as a Badge of Military Merit.

The modern version, whose criteria were established in 1932, is awarded to troops wounded in combat. For those who make the ultimate sacrifice, it is presented posthumously to the surviving family.

Walter O'Haire military medals There's a federal law prohibiting the sale of the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest award for military heroism. But no such law exists for other military medals. That means anyone at a pawnshop, antique mall, swap meet or online auction house is free to buy, sell and trade the memorabilia.

For collectors, the Purple Heart has become a bauble that can fetch a premium. Some medals are awarded to troops for doing little more than signing up to join the military. But the Purple Heart requires sacrifice and is recognizable to many Americans. It brings the aura of war to the den of any armchair warrior.

The monetary cost of the medal is a bargain compared with what was paid by the person who earned it. Those presented posthumously, and which can have the deceased's name engraved on them, are especially tempting to collectors because they are a one-of-a-kind representation of pain, loss and heroism.

I've argued against making the sale of any medals illegal. I understand the reasoning and emotions involved, yet the reality is that the marketplace is often what saves these treasures from the trash bin and enables their eventual return. The auctioneer Bill Panagopulos explained it well. -Editor

In true Panagopulian fashion, the voluble auctioneer took two hours, three bourbons, dozens of profanities and at least one cigar to explain his mindset over the phone.

He told me that it saddens him every time a set of medals comes up for auction because it means that the service member no longer has anyone to care for his or her legacy. Oftentimes, some distant relative finds the stuff in an attic and gets rid of them, sometimes a descendant just needs some pocket money. He's seen it so many times that he figured that was the case with Gator's memorabilia.

I said what the hell kind of family would give this up? he told me. I didn't feel comfortable offering it for sale but that's my job.

And, he added, the collectors he's worked with for decades aren't disrespecting the memory of deceased warriors, on the contrary, they're honoring them.

Collectors often buy Purple Hearts and meticulously research the deceased in the National Archives. They display the medals in a place of prominence.

They become the new family, and you can quote me on that, Mr. Panagopulos said. They live vicariously through it. They feel like they're standing next to the guy when he threw that grenade into that pillbox.

When a family abdicates taking care of a service member's legacy, Mr. Panagopulos feels it's his job to make sure his memorabilia ends up in a place of reverence. Why not in the hands of a dedicated and sympathetic collector?

The medals were eventually reunited with the family. It's a great story, well worth reading all the way through. -Editor

To read the complete article (subscription required), see:
I Thought I Was Done With Iraq. Then a Fellow Marine's Purple Heart Turned Up at Auction. (

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Wayne Homren, Editor

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