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German Auction House Sells U.S. Medal of Honor

By Richard Giedroyc

The provenance of a coin, or in this case a military decoration, can be important. This can be due to the potential of the item otherwise being reclaimed by an individual or by a foreign nation due to the object being family or national patrimony.

This scenario has played out many times for American collectors owning ancient coins. Collectors and museums have needed to defend the legitimacy of their ownership due to the coins having being illicitly sold, having been sold originating from a country where it was illegal to export them. Israel and Turkey are among countries with strict laws regarding the export of ancient coins found within their borders.

The well-known U.S. 1933 $20 gold coins are with specially arranged exceptions illegal to own within the United States. Many of the surviving examples were spirited away to Europe where, until recently, these coins were safe from being seized.

A 1,000-muhur gold coin dated 1613 minted in Agra (India) is among treasure coins of Indian native states currently in Switzerland or England since the Indian government would otherwise seize the coins as being national treasures illegally exported.

A U.S. Medal of Honor was recently sold at the Hermann-Historica GmbH auction in Grasbrunn/Munich, Germany, despite it being a felony in the United States for the medal to be bartered or sold. The medal realized 14,000 euros or about 15,500 USD as lot number 5099 on May 28. The successful bidder remained anonymous at the time this article was being written. Hermann-Historica Managing Director Bernhard Pacher commented that the seller was a private individual “looking to beef up his pension.”

According to the auction house description of the lot: “The five-rayed star (Army, first model) embossed in copper and bronzed, standing upright on one tip, bearing the engraver's signature 'Paquet F. The eagle riband buckle fastened with rings and the suspension bar with a safety pin, both also embossed in bronzed copper. On the original ribbon in the design issued between 1896 and 1903. The dedication ‘The Congress to Private Thomas Kelly - Co. H 21st U.S. Infty., for gallantry in action at Santiago, Cuba, July 1, 1898’ inscribed on the back.”

Senator Ted Cruz (R., Texas) attempted to prevent the sale through a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Cruz wrote, “The sale harms the dignity and honor of all recipients of the Medal of Honor. Congress and the United States have long sought to prevent such affronts, and indeed 18 U.S. Code § 704 authorizes fines and imprisonment when those sales occur within our jurisdiction. In this context, I urgently call on you to work with the US's foreign partners, including with officials of the Federal Republic of Germany, to ensure the sale is suspended.” (The State Department does not comment on congressional correspondence.)

The auction house is not under U.S. jurisdiction. Sources indicated it is not clear how the auction house came into possession of Kelly's medal, but the auction house has acknowledged it has previously sold four other Medals of Honor. This is why each medal’s provenance or pedigree becomes so important.

National Medal of Honor Museum spokesman Dave Knaus confirmed efforts to locate surviving relatives of Kelly have been unsuccessful. Kelly died Dec. 17, 1920. It is known Kelly was born in Ireland, his date of birth being unknown. Kelly’s medal citation indicates he “gallantly assisted with the rescue of the wounded from in front of the lines and while under heavy fire from the enemy.”

Knaus said the museum is looking into identifying the successful bidder and contemplating possible further actions. The museum is currently compiling historical data on other medals that have gone missing or have changed hands.

In a recently released statement Medal of Honor Museum President and CEO Joe Daniels said, “This Medal of Honor is a priceless American treasure that belongs here in our country. We're asking our elected leaders and officials in the administration to do what they can to prevent people from illegally profiting off of Private Kelly's heroism and bring the medal home where it belongs.”

The Medal of Honor was created during the Civil War. Since that time 3,525 Medals of Honor have been awarded. It is assumed each medal is kept by the family of the individuals to whom each has been awarded. Just as with the 1933 $20 coins, laws have been implemented and enforced to ensure ownership is regulated. Without a provable provenance, no one in the United States can legally own an example of the medal.