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Medal peddlers: Thriving Purple Heart market has fans and foes

Vintage Purple Hearts can fetch hundreds or thousands of dollars on the open market.

 

The Second World War cost John Henckel his life. The Purple Heart medal he earned for his valiant death comes far cheaper.

For $395, you can buy the award the Army granted posthumously to Henckel, an Army private from Texas, who was killed in action in the Philippines on Jan. 30, 1945.

That’s the price quoted at BayStateMilitaria.com, a combat collectibles site that lists 12 Purple Hearts for sale, ranging from $90 for an unnamed, World War II medal “in nice condition” on up to Henckel’s ribbon.

“A lot of people don’t understand why people collect these. They think it’s a glorification of war. It’s the exact opposite: It’s the celebration of America’s good deeds,” said Scott Kraska, operator of BayStateMilitaria. “It’s memorializing those soldiers who lived and those soldiers who died, celebrating them, learning about them, caring about them through their artifacts – uniforms, diaries, letters and through their medals.”

Following a Supreme Court decision in June that effectively overturned a seven-year-old ban on the buying and selling of Purple Hearts in this country, the oldest U.S. military decorations have bloomed into popular commodities among online souvenir dealers, Internet classified lists, and e-retailers, not to mention at swap meets and vintage stores.


“They can’t keep them on the shelves in an antique shop – on the day they put one out there, it’s gone,” said Capt. Zach Fike, an Army National Guard member based in Burlington, Vt.

But the burgeoning Purple Heart market, in Fike’s view, is nothing more than an American tragedy. He devotes many of his nights and weekends to his passion and to his nonprofit, Purple Hearts Reunited. During the past two years, Fike has used his online detective skills to return seven of the wayward medals – earned by U.S. service members killed or wounded in action – to those soldiers’ families.

For the majority of Purple Heart collectors and dealers, Fike has few kind words.

“It wouldn’t be fair for me to say they’re all bad. But the ones I have encountered, I would consider myself their No. 1 enemy,” Fike said. “They’re making hundreds or thousands of dollars on (each one) these medals. They think it’s cool. It’s a symbol of death. Because of that, it has a lot of market interest and it has a lot of value.”

For Kraska and BayStateMilitaria, based in Massachusetts, Fike has even more scathing review: “He is making a profit off of people who died. I have no respect for that man.”

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The two men have had one phone conversation. It did not go well. Fike tried to convince Kraska to at least look for the medal recipients’ families before selling the Purple Hearts; Kraska tried to sway Fike that he sells medals that the recipients’ families have typically sold at garage sales or just tossed in the trash.

Their personal war – fueled by American wars past, during which more than 1.7 million Purple Hearts have been granted by the military – boiled hotter after the Supreme Court struck down the Stolen Valor Act. Signed into law in 2006, the act primarily intended to muzzle people who falsely claimed they had received military medals. As a side consequence, however, the act made it illegal to sell military decorations.

In June, the High Court ruled that the Stolen Valor Act infringed on free speech – even if that speech was fraudulent and uttered by fake war heroes. (On Sept. 13, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a more narrowly focused version of the Stolen Valor Act that will allow criminal prosecutions against individuals who “knowingly” misrepresent their military service records “with the intent to obtain anything of value.”)

Meanwhile, the Purple Heart market remains open for business.

How do those cherished awards typically reach the storerooms of military memorabilia dealers? Medal peddlers often find them at yard sales, flea markets or on sites like Craigslist.

High court strikes down Stolen Valor Act

“They’re not there because somebody pried them out of the hands of an unwilling person,” said Kraska, a military souvenir collector since age 15. He’s now 45. “They’re there because these families have thrown them away or sold them. So these pieces become separated from the family not by accident. They are discarded items.”

The value of a Purple Heart is determined, in part, by whether its recipient was killed in action. In such cases, the military engraves the service member’s name on the back of the medal before giving it to the next of kin. Eventually, if collectors obtain those medals, that scant amount of information allows dealers to research the soldier’s personal history and find out when and how he died.

“These hearts have more of a historical context,” and thus fetch more in sales, Kraska said. “If a Purple Heart is out of its element (and blank on the back), you have no idea who it belonged to; it really has no historical significance and consequently does not have a lot of monetary value.”

In today’s military collectibles market, Purple Hearts doled out during World War II tend to be worth $300 to $400, Kraska said. The prices are fueled by America’s continuing infatuation with “the Greatest Generation” and its seminal conflict, spurred further by popular recent films like “Saving Private Ryan” and by TV miniseries like “Band of Brothers.”

The U.S. Supreme Court is debating the Stolen Valor Act, a 2005 law that makes it a federal crime to lie about receiving a military medal. Some consider it a violation of the First Amendment. NBC's Pete Williams reports.

Price points are also driven upward if medals are contained in their original shipping boxes and if they are accompanied by the soldier’s letters home or by government correspondences about the service member’s passing.

“When you see these things, you’re looking into the window of what it was like to be on the other end of the homecoming of World War II, away from the tickertape parades,” Kraska said. “I’ll sometimes have not only the Purple Heart but the original telegram sent to the (deceased’s) mother. I’ve had crumbled telegrams because somebody was in such anguish after receiving that news.”

Courtesy of Zach Fike

Army National Guard Capt. Zach Fike bought Ralph Bingham's 93-year-old Purple Heart on Craigslist then returned it to Bingham's family last Saturday. Fike stands with Barbara MacNevin, the daughter of Private Bingham. The photo was taken at the Bourne, Mass. National Cemetery on Sept. 15. MacNevin holds the flag that was flown over the U.S. Capital in honor of her father. Atop the folded flag is Bingham's Purple Heart.

While Kraska emphasized that he treats his for-sale medals with love, veterans like John Bircher are equally anguished when money is generated – years later – by the blood shed by an American Marine, infantryman, sailor or flier.

“We hate to see these things out there for sale. Anytime I see one at a flea market or a pawn shop, I buy it,” said Bircher, spokesman for the Military Order of the Purple Heart. The group, based in Sprinfield, Va., was formed in 1932 “for the protection and mutual interest of all who have received the decoration.” It is composed exclusively of Purple Heart recipients. Bircher earned his when he took shrapnel in the leg in Vietnam.

Fike, too, owns a Purple Heart. He was wounded Sept. 11, 2010 in Afghanistan when an enemy rocket landed near his bunk and sent a burning chunk of shrapnel into his lower back.

But his fervor to return Purple Hearts to the families of the recipients was kindled, he said, when his own mother gave him another man’s Purple Heart as a Christmas gift shortly before Fike was deployed to Afghanistan. She had purchased the award for $100 at an antique shop. Fike began a quest to find the identity of that soldier and eventually discovered his name, Corrado Piccoli, his fate – killed in France in 1943 – and then tracked down his kin and returned the heirloom.  

He insists that most Purple Hearts that wind up in thrift shops or in online auctions were not purposely surrendered by families nor meant to be sold but were often lost or misplaced, only to be discovered years later by people who had no connection to the medals yet who saw dollar signs. 

“I know I’m out numbered on this - there's hundreds of collectors selling them and buying them compared to one guy who’s on this crusade,” Fike said.

“But if I can just reach one or two of these dealers and convince them to at least try to reunite the medals with the families of the recipients, well, then I’ve done some justice.”