Over the last few years, I’ve started collecting religious medals. Why? Well, I like them and as someone who likes to dabble in making jewelry and prayer beads old medals and reproductions can be useful. I don’t collect them for their value. While there are certainly medals that are worth more than others and some have considerable value, it is very difficult to judge. There are many reproductions out there, generated in part I think because of the low artistic value of most modern medals.
Many of the older medals are really works of art. The medal making industry seems to have taken quite a blow around the time of World War II. The height of artistic medal making seems to have focused in France and Belgium around the time of World War I. This parallels with a period of artistic secular medal working. If you browse through the medals on eBay you will see quite a few attractive secular medals from around the time of World War I, many specially commissioned as prizes for competitions or to commemorate a variety of anniversaries. Most of these secular medals are in the art nouveau style. Some of these artists were also commissioned to do religious medals especially to commemorate anniversaries. Its not uncommon to find medals from around World War I that are signed by the artist.
There are many medals out there to choose from. Today there are about 900 listed on eBay. Where do they come from? Many are new; some come from estates. There are several dealers who have 20-40 medals online at any one time. Its not unusual to see medals and other items to be listed as formerly belonging to a nun. Some convents sell things directly on eBay but most seem to sell to dealers who then take them to eBay or I suppose shops.
Tips for collecting religious medals:
- Become familiar with modern medal styles.
- If it is stamped with “Italy” then it modern, at least post-World War II. It may be still being sold new.
- Medals come in gold, silver, silver plated, bronze, a few steel and many are base metal. Base metal has a bright finish when new but this can wear off. Vintage silver plated will have worn spots. Steel medals are rare, but I have one (19th century?) medal from Bavaria.
- There are hundreds to thousands of medals on eBay at any one time, if you don’t see what you want just wait.
- Worn base metal medals are often passed off on eBay as vintage when the same style can still be bought new today for less than $1.
- Collect what you like because it may never be worth more than you pay (if that).
- Specialize in a particular saint or type of medal.
- Medals of the most popular saints, like Joan of Arc, are often reproductions. This can be fine for me, just be aware of what you are buying.
- Dates are good but be aware that it may not be the date it was made. Miraculous medals are often dated 1830 because that is the date of the vision that inspired the medal. Some anniversary medals like the Jubilee Medal of Monticassino commissioned in 1880 are still very popular and thousands are made every year today. (The Jubliee Medal of Monticassino is the most popular style of St Benedict medal.)
- There are very rarely some real antique medals out there found in archaeological digs, mostly from the Americas (16-18th century). My only suggestion is to be very careful that they are legal first and what they claim to be second. Places like the Rosary Workshop sell reproductions of many of these early medals.
- If you want it for a chain or similar use, make sure the bail is ok. There are pocket tokens, brooches (often broken), medals with broken bails, and buttons that are listed under medals and medallions on eBay.
- Beware of the size. Religious medals come in all sizes from practically too small to see to huge.