Last September saw the introduction of H.R. 6234 by U.S. Representative Paul Cook (R – CA), titled “Private Corrado Piccoli Purple Heart Preservation Act.” It sought to make unlawful the sale of any Purple Heart medal, ribbon, button, or rosette, with penalties to include fines and imprisonment.
A revised version of the bill, H.R. 544 was introduced by Representative Cook on January 13, 2017, intended to amend title 18, United States Code, “to provide for the sale of any Purple Heart awarded to a member of the Armed Forces.”
The bill was referred to House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations on February 8, 2017.
The bill currently has 34 co-sponsors, including two Republicans from Kansas, Lynn Jenkins and Roger Marshall. There are no co-sponsors from Missouri. It is still unclear if or when it will be brought to a vote.
The circle of militaria collectors here in the US is more than a little alarmed. The thing is, the Purple Heart, Navy Cross, Air Force Cross, Silver Star, and a number of combat badges are already “protected.” There are, of course, enhanced penalties for the ultra-rare Congressional Medal of Honor.
At the heart of this is the increasing attention paid to “stolen valor,” which we most often think of as someone putting together a uniform and posing as a veteran, or someone claiming to have been awarded a decoration they did not earn. This is, of course, an issue that should not be taken lightly.
There have been 1.8 million Purple Hearts awarded over the years, plus significant amounts of every one of the other decorations mentioned, including their ribbons, buttoniers, etc.
I can’t begin to estimate the number of Purple Heart medals I’ve evaluated over the last 20 years. Each and every time I handle these items, I think about the service and sacrifice behind these awards – and wonder about the path they have taken to the secondary militaria market, whether by garage sales, tag sales, estate sales, thrift stores, flea market booths, public auction, and militaria shows. I also know the vast majority of those that collect, preserve and trade in militaria think about these things as well.
A Valuable Lesson – Personal Experience
My own family, at some point, sold, gave away or otherwise released my great uncle Wally’s (Pfc Wally Jones, 31st Infantry Regiment “Polar Bears,” Siberia 1918-1919) First World War medals, as well as other related service documents and photos.
While I am not a collector – at least beyond the odd three-dimensional item that helps illustrate my lectures and presentations – I am an appraiser, so part of my job is to track militaria markets. About ten years ago, I found an auction record of Uncle Wally’s items – unfortunately about two months after they were sold. Given the family connection and my intense interest in the Great War, I was immensely disappointed and frustrated I couldn’t bring his things “back home.” But that’s the nature of things.
But I also know his things are being looked after and appreciated by a collector that will someday release them back into the market. I’ll be paying attention.
The vast majority of people that trade in militaria are not unscrupulous, vicious profiteers, money grubbers, deplorable human beings or any other pejorative description that politicians or overly-emotional members of the public assign them. Often they are veterans.
Ultimately they are the people that look after physical representations of a total stranger’s service that, all too often, descendants ceased to appreciate somewhere along the line and simply abandoned. Theft has simply not been that common.
Fallout: Unintended Consequences
I wholeheartedly support private efforts to “reunite” named medals of all types, Purple Hearts, Bronze and Silver Stars, the Legion of Merit, Distinguished Service Cross, whatever, with families that have had them stolen. I also support it for families that simply ceased to appreciate the medals, badges, uniforms, etc., and allowed them to be dispersed somewhere along the line – but are now ready to resume their stewardship.
It’s important to remember that if the bill becomes law, the only jurisdiction would be the USA.
Of course, the first victims will be, ironically, the living recipients themselves, as this law would deny them the right to do as they wish with their decoration. The liberty their sacrifice was meant to protect will not be extended to the symbol of that sacrifice – as it has been for the previous generations.
It also will likely result in serious collectors of the higher-value name-engraved examples, i.e. those killed in action, to European or Asian auction houses, brokers, dealers, etc. There, the trade in named examples is already solid.
One of the most sacred symbols of our history will simply leave the country, and Purple Heart recipient families, increasingly separated by multiple generations, which suddenly become interested in tracing their relation’s past will have to look far beyond our own borders to find the decoration.
Almost certainly, too, these same international auction houses, brokers, and dealers will exclude sale of the decorations to the US citizens or people with US addresses.
When thinking about the possibility of medal repatriation and reunion, we’re left to guess what form a special dispensation for purchase might take, but congress loves the chance to bureaucratize the unnecessary. Just as certain too will be those that will profit from guiding families willing to make their way through the bureaucratic maze, purchase the decoration and arrange for its return to the U.S.
There is also the ancillary concern of who is going to look after the medals discarded by disinterested families, banks or courts administering and liquidating the estates of deceased veterans with no heirs, etc.
Add to this the unnamed examples, which even a quick glance through secondary markets will reveal are many, will become a nuisance that may just as easily be remedied by quietly tossing them in the bin with the deceased’s remnant tie tacks, cufflinks, and expired AAA membership cards.
Numerous individual uniforms and estate groupings including the Purple Heart as a medal or ribbon bar that have been preserved by collectors across the secondary market for decades will now have to be stripped of the decoration and/or ribbon bar, leaving the physical representation of the man’s service incomplete and unable to tell its full story.
This, to me, seems the final injustice.
Conclusion: Gathering the Eagles
That said, a collector’s personality is reflected in their collection. Most often, collections of militaria are assembled out of love, curiosity, and a deep desire to connect with and preserve the minutiae of the past.
Criminalizing the people that have looked after someone else’s history, sometimes for decades, while the recipient’s family was off chasing their own dreams is well and truly deplorable.
If collectors or dealers make a few bucks along the way, that’s only fair. These people have, in the truest sense, been the custodians of a sacred aspect of the heritage and history of our country when those that should have been appreciative all along simply couldn’t be bothered.
I hope this misguided overreach quietly disappears.