Auction results prove medals need no certification

By Jesse Robitaille

The collecting community continues to debate the growing interest in certifying medals after a generational Canadian collection brought strong results at an April auction.

With Canadian medals attracting more interest and higher prices in recent years, some collectors are seeking out pieces certified by third-party grading services, which have long provided increased trust and confidence to the collectible coin market. But while certified coins have remained an industry standard for three decades, some of the hobby’s leading figures question the need for slabbing medals, which they consider pieces of art with vastly different practical uses.

“Historical medals are not generic widgets,” said Ottawa dealer Jacob Lipson, who catalogued the Michael Joffre Collection of Canadian Historic Medals, which he called a “once-in-a-generation” offering before it was auctioned in April. “There aren’t thousands of each type that survive across the entire grade spectrum. In fact, medals are rarely supposed to circulate in the same way coins do, so grading them like coins doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Instead of relying on grades and graders, collectors would be better served by drawing on their own experiences or those of a reputable dealer or auction house and making choices based on those experiences.”

The Joffre Collection, whose catalogue was billed as an update to Joseph LeRoux’s seminal 1888 reference guide The Canadian Coin Cabinet, spanned nearly 400 lots, none of which were certified or held in third-party grading holders. The lack of certification had no noticeable impact on bidding, which was “strong across the board,” Lipson said this May (“Coin Expo returns with star-studded medal auction,” CCN Vol. 60 #5, June 7, 2022). The total hammer price before premiums fell within $508 – or 0.2 per cent – of auctioneers’ pre-sale estimates excluding the only two lots that failed to meet their reserve prices.

“It’s clear that participants in the sale of the Joffre Collection were comfortable stepping up without specific grades assigned by a third-party grader,” said Lipson, who added the results prove certifying medals “does nothing” to signify their rarity, historical significance or aesthetic beauty.

“Beginners and specialists alike had a chance to examine what was included in the collection, read the lot descriptions, look at the images online or in the catalogue and/or examine the pieces in hand then draw their own conclusions. Ultimately, that’s what this hobby is about – appreciating history, art, rarity and condition and then making decisions about how one values an item.”

CERTIFIED GRADES OR DESCRIPTIONS?

Instead of relying on a generic grade, Lipson provided full descriptions for each lot in the Joffre Collection sale.

These comprehensive details included subject lines, dates (if present), compositions and other specifications such as the diameter, edge type, pedigree and notes about the maker. Overall, the descriptions addressed all positive and negative characteristics of each medal’s colour, surface preservation, wear, abrasions, boxes, paperwork and other technical aspects, according to Lipson, who owns Jacob Lipson Rare Coins.

“That includes examining each lot, taking weights and measurements, doing the research required and writing it all up. We also had many discussions prior to cataloguing about how we were going to tackle this project, and there was considerable back and forth about imaging and layout after the cataloguing was done.”

The catalogue’s estimates combined past sales, historical significance, quality and rarity because – unlike coinage – medals were never intended to circulate and served different purposes than circulation coins.

While coin grading attempts to “quantify wear from circulation or handling,” medals are a “completely different animal,” Lipson said before the sale (“Joffre Collection of Canadian medals a calibre unseen in decades,” CCN Vol. 59 #25, March 15, 2022).

“They would have been used and enjoyed in different ways. … They aren’t comparable. … We preferred to let those things speak for themselves and to keep the subjective nature of grading out of the equation.”

This June, Lipson added: “There are good arguments for and against third-party grading; however, we don’t encapsulate sculpture or art and assign formal grades. That doesn’t happen for most antiques or other historical artifacts either. Medals are all of those things, and we should treat them the same way: share their stories, discuss how common or uncommon they are, enjoy their various states of preservation and make buying decisions that reflect those things as well as our individual tastes and priorities.”

In some areas of the hobby, the market is “losing sight of what is being collected and why,” Lipson said.

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