Ten of the most valuable and collectable WWI antiques you might have hidden in your attic
To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the end of World War One, we’ve partnered with military historian and WWI expert Mark Smith, to compile the top ten most valuable WWI antiques on the market. Mark has also shared information on these precious items and his tips and tricks for any avid WWI collector.
The 10 most valuable items are as follows:
Victoria Cross Medal, up to £200,000
‘She died for freedom’ memorial plaque, accompanied by her medals, up to £14,000
PH Hood Gas Mask, over £1,500/ A Memorial Plaque, up to £1,500 depending on the story of the solider
Other Ranks uniform jacket, from £1,000/ Other Ranks uniform boots, from £1,000
Other Ranks uniform trousers, up to £800
The Graves Registration WWI Grave Marker, from £600
Brody Shrapnel Steel Helmets, up to £500
1914 Christmas Tin Compete with all contents, £200
1914 Christmas Writing Set, from £150
Home front badges, £80
'She died for freedom' memorial plaque
The 1914 Star
WWI Writing Case
Medals are broken down into Campaign Medals and Gallantry Medals. There are common medals from WWI that you may have in a draw or frame on the wall, however, do not discount these as just “ordinary” - each medal has a name rank and number inscribed around the rim or on the back - this allows you to unlock the story of that man, or woman. The key to Great War medals is research, finding out the story behind the medals and the story becomes the value. To place a man as close to an action as possible is the aim - if a man, or woman, was killed during the war, this enables the researcher to place a man in a trench at a particular time during the battle. A visit to the grave and battlefield is then possible giving a full picture of the man or woman who served. It is this research that increases the value.
Gallantry medals were given for specific acts of bravery, in most cases the actual deed can be discovered, alas for the 115,000 Military Medals issued during the Great War the citations were lost during World War Two with the bombing of the Army Records Office in 1940, a huge loss, however gallantry medals do attract premium prices and if you are lucky enough to find one.
The Memorial Plaque
A Bronze Plaque measuring 12cm in diameter was issued, each individually named, to the families of those who had lost their lives during the War or because of their wounds after it, this practice continued up until the 1930’s. The Plaque, sometimes known as the “Dead Man’s Penny”, was issued to all British and Commonwealth servicemen and women. The Plaque was issued in a card board cover with a printed note from the King; it came in a postal envelope. The War Office, through the Acton Foundry and the Royal Arsenal at Woolwich issued somewhere in the region of 1,333,000 plaques. Again, it is the research of the person to whom the plaque is named that will increase the value, closer to than action again applies. For example, a memorial plaque for a Sergeant killed in the trenches at Ypres on the 23 April 1917 will cost significantly lower to one from a Sergeant in the Royal Flying Corps killed at Ypres on the same day but shot down by the Red Baron - it’s all about the story.
Alas as the Plaques only show the person’s name, no other details are recorded, therefore a plaque without any supporting medals or paperwork to a more common name such as ‘John Brown’ will only be worth about £50-60 as the list of those killed called John Brown will be very long and there is no way to link your plaque to the correct man.
About 10 million men wore a khaki uniform between 1914 and 1918. Officers had to buy their own clothes from tailors, they also bought their own equipment, compasses, swords, beds, wash bowls and anything they thought would be useful for a young gentleman at the front. This meant that when the war ended the items which belonged to the officer went home with him. Whilst uniforms are getting scarce, the ancillary equipment is still in great abundance and therefore not of huge value.
The Other Ranks, however, were issued with their uniform and when they left it was given back. Items of ordinary soldier’s uniforms are therefore much rarer and more interesting, and of course valuable. If any individual names can be attached to the uniforms providing a provenance again the price increases.
The Steel Helmet, or to call it buy its proper name the “Brody Shrapnel Helmet”, did not enter service until late 1915 early 1916, a direct result of so many head injuries being caused by shells which were designed to burst in the air above trenches and shower the men with lead balls (shrapnel bullets). Millions of steel helmets were in consequence produced. However not many remain, slightly different in design from the World War Two version, the Brody Shrapnel Helmets Mk 1 and 2 are highly sort after, any obvious battle damage will add greatly to the value as will an inscribed name.
Probably one of the evilest inventions of WWI was the use and delivery of poison gas. The first Gas attack was in April 1915 near Ypres and its effects were devastating - not only did it maim, kill and cause utter panic but it left those exposed to a life of slowly deteriorating health and was the underlying cause of many deaths in later years. To counteract this deadly new weapon the British developed quickly an item of equipment called the PH Hood, a simple pillow case like bag with an eye piece. The bags were dipped in chemicals; you simply pulled the bag over your head and breathed through the fabric, through the chemicals. A truly dreadful experience one would imagine.
1914 Christmas Tins
At Christmas 1914 Princess Mary started a fund to issue a small metal tin to all men and women of the armed services as a present on Christmas day. The Tins today, if empty, cost around £30-50 (beware of fakes which were made to deceive the unwary). The tin contained a packet of tobacco and packet of cigarettes, a Christmas card and a photograph of Queen Mary. Sometimes a rifle bullet is contained alone in the tin with a cardboard insert that holds it in place; these tins also had the Christmas card and the photograph. The bullet is in fact a pencil and if the silvered bullet is removed from the cartridge one will find a small pencil. These “Bullet Pencil” tins were given to servicemen who were in uniform on Christmas Day 1914 but who were not overseas.
The Home Front
As the war needed more and more men to fight at the front line, the jobs of those who left were invariably filled by women. This was a huge step forward and the opening of a much-needed change. The factory workers, particularly those in the munition’s factories, were given metal “On War Service” badges to show that they worked in a war related job. These badges are highly sort after by collectors, as is anything to do with female participation in armament manufacture in the war.
The Graves Registration Grave Marker
For those who died during the war their grave (if found) was marked by a mass-produced wooden cross. The naming and details affixed to the cross were made of a type of metal tape. The crosses marked the graves of the fallen until the Imperial, now the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) started to build the cemeteries we now see all over the world marking the last resting place of those who died. When the cemeteries were being built and the wooden crosses were being replaced with the stone headstones. It became apparent that the workers building the cemeteries, mostly old soldiers, were unhappy simply burning the wooden crosses. To this end the CWGC placed a notification in newspapers that stated that if your relatives cross was wanted at home then it would be sent to you when it was replaced with a permanent marker. The crosses were posted in canvas purpose-built bags to the families of those who wished to have them. Many of these crosses were then given to the local church and indeed can be seen today in many churches across the country hanging on the wall, often mud stained and indeed bullet holed, the ultimate object of remembrance. In the last few years a national register of the crosses has been compiled giving location and details. Some of these iconic objects must still be in private hands, more than any monetary value these historic items should be made known to the National Register and a suitable home found for their lasting preservation.
Other items to look for
As we have seen millions of objects were made and used during the war, but as a quick guide, certain units that belonged to people in some regiments are instantly worth more than other units. For example, any Irish Regiments, the Royal Flying Corps, those who served in Submariners and the Tunnelers who dug under the trenches laying the great mines, will always be of greater value. For the women of WWI, the Nurses, Voluntary Aid Detachment workers and the Scottish Women’s Hospital also are highly collectable and very valuable.
Also, don’t forget it’s not Just in France and Belgium that the War was fought, Gallipoli, Mesopotamia (Iraq), Salonika, Italy, Palestine, Jordan, and indeed China to name a few places, all saw conflict, items related to these areas are also always of more interest and therefore value.
Investor guidelines to WWI artefact collecting:
Research – being able to place an object with a person on a battlefield at a specific time and date. The provenance of an item is the key to the value. An object found in a draw and separated from its box, paperwork, photographs and letters is worthless; the more ancillary supporting documentation and personal narrative that can accompany the object will immeasurably increase the value of the object. Remember if you have a toy car from the 1950’s the box it came in is worth so much more than the car!
LoveAntiques.com military historian, Mark Smith said:
“The Great War involved millions of men. That’s millions of uniforms issued, millions of items of equipment, millions of medals and, alas, millions of crosses to mark the graves of the fallen during the four and a half years that the War to End all Wars was fought.
“As the years have gone by the items they wore, used and brought home have been lost, discarded, thrown away or passed on to museums. This means that the millions of objects have now been whittled down to, in some cases, just a rare few - it is these objects that the Militaria Collector will be looking for. If you are lucky enough to find any of these truly historic items from the War in the loft or back of the drawer, you could be walking away with a pretty penny.”
Will Thomas managing director at LoveAntiques.com added:
“An antique is classified as an object that is 100+ years old, so items from the entirety of the First World War can now be classified as antiques.
“Even without this ‘official’ status, the period has long held a fascination and romanticism for collectors of antiques and war memorabilia alike and we’ve had items from this important time period sold through the site for a number of years. As you might expect, we’ve seen an unsurprising increase in demand around the centenary celebrations, as they officially become antiques. It will be fascinating to see what other items we see on the market in the next 12 months, as well as the prices they command. We hope this list will help both avid collectors and members of the public, who may have items on the list in their home that have been passed down through the generations.”