Any Victoria Cross fitting of the description ‘unique and exceptional’ is likely to make a stand-out price.
An 1891 honour worthy of that assessment set a world auction record for a British army VC – and a top sum for a Victorian VC – at London saleroom Dix Noonan Webb (24% buyer’s premium) on June 23.
Awarded to 30-year-old Scotsman Lieutenant, later Colonel, Charles Grant, of the 12th Regiment (2nd Burma Battalion) Madras Infantry, it was among a group of five sold for £420,000 – an in-house auction record for a medal at DNW – to a ‘relatively new collector of British gallantry awards’ after competition between two phone bidders. The estimate was £300,000-400,000.
It was on hearing of the execution of British officials and the capture of others after a new maharajah took over at Manipur, on the Burmese border, that Grant had immediately set out to relieve the captives and exact retribution.
At the head of his 80-man detachment – 40 Ghurkas and 40 Punjabi troops - he stormed an enemy position under a heavy fire at Thobal, driving the 800-strong foe from their entrenched defences.
Taking up a defensive position within improvised fortifications, Grant then became surrounded by an estimated 2000 of the returning enemy which attacked the small force over a period of eight days.
Grant led a number of brilliant sallies to dislodge and disperse the Manipuris each time they approached and then, in negotiations over the release of prisoners, deceived them into thinking they were facing a much larger force – he recalled that he “borrowed two stars from a jemadar’s shoulder straps and placed them on his own… no longer a Subaltern commanding a small detachment, but a Colonel, with his regiment at his back.”
With dwindling ammunition and growing disease among his ranks, Grant successfully withdrew his force to link up with reinforcements. Leading his men to the attack once more to take a fort he was badly wounded, after which he was carried triumphantly into Manipur by his men, and those concerned in the murder of British officers were punished.
Christopher Mellor-Hill at DNW said: “This further underlines the stature of the VC as the world’s most famous gallantry award. Col Grant’s bravery for his fighting leadership in the capture and defence of the fort at Thobal earned him the tribute of one of his Gurkha soldiers who said ‘How could we be beaten under Grant Sahib? He is a tiger in fight’.“
The VC was sold together with a substantial associated archive. Items of particular significance included Grant’s unpublished leather-bound ‘Officer’s Field Note and Sketch Book and Reconnaissance Aide-Memoire’ illustrated by several detailed sketches of both actions and positions, a file of original letters, including the negotiations between Grant and the Manipuris and a coded message from Grant in Greek characters to the relief force.
The VC is the highest British military decoration, awarded for valour in the face of the enemy. Since its introduction in 1856 a total of 1354 medals have been awarded. Grant was the 406th recipient.
The 150th VC to be awarded sold for a hammer price of £180,000 at London auction house Spink (20% buyer’s premium) on July 29.
The Indian Mutiny VC group of three including the Order of the Bath and CB (Military) Companion’s breast badge earned by General James Blair, 2nd Bombay Light Cavalry, had been estimated at £160,000-200,000.
Blair was decorated for his remarkable bravery in two separate hand-to-hand actions, one of which saw him required to use the broken hilt of his sword to personally lead a charge against the enemy after he had broken the blade against the head of one of his enemy. He was severely wounded on both occasions.
The group was purchased at Spink in 1969. This time it was bought by a UK-based phone bidder who beat a commission bidder.