Canadian War Museum buys Victoria Cross for $420K at auction

A rare medal for bravery awarded to a Canadian First World War hero has sold at an auction in England for $420,000.

The Canadian War Museum is the buyer

David Currie, a major in the Second World War, was awarded the Victoria Cross for leading a small battle group of Canadian tanks and infantry that stopped the German army from escaping the Falaise Pocket in 1944. (Submitted by the Currie family)

A rare medal for bravery awarded to a Canadian First World War hero has sold at an auction in England for $420,000.

The Canadian War Museum has confirmed it is the buyer of Cpl. Colin Barron's Victoria Cross, meaning the medal will stay in Canada.

Cpl. Barron earned the Victoria Cross medal at the Battle of Passchendaele on Nov. 6, 1917, one of only nine Canadians to be awarded for heroism in the fierce and bloody battle that claimed the lives of more than 4,000 Canadian soldiers.

Barron's Victoria Cross citation says he single-handedly rushed three enemy machine-guns, killing four crew and capturing the rest. He then turned one of the guns on the retreating German troops, allowing the Canadians to continue to advance.

"This medal is a testament to one soldier's courage and a symbol of the service and sacrifice of all Canadian soldiers who fought on the Western Front a century ago," Mark O'Neill, president and CEO of the federal Crown corporation that operates the Canadian War Museum, said in a press release. "Its acquisition is especially meaningful this year as we commemorate the centenary of Passchendaele, Vimy Ridge and other iconic battles of the First World War."

Currie, left, with pistol, stands as German officers bring their men into surrender in August 1944. He retired as a lieutenant-colonel. ( Library and Archives Canada)

Today's auction came as the family of a Second World War war hero is pleading with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to help keep their father's Victoria Cross in Canada.

David Currie was awarded one of 16 Victoria Crosses bestowed on Canadians during the Second World War. Currie's award was sold at auction in London to an unknown foreign buyer for a total cost of $660,000 in September.

"In the military, I guess this would be called a last stand. Please take this stand to ensure that we do not lose yet another piece of Canadian history," the Currie family wrote in a letter to Trudeau.

Currie, a major at the time, was awarded the Victoria Cross for leading a small battle group of Canadian tanks and infantry that stopped the German army from escaping the Falaise Pocket in 1944.

Despite heavy casualties to Currie's force, he led an attack that saw seven enemy tanks destroyed, 300 German casualties and 2,100 enemy troops captured.

Currie's son David remembers his father telling him about the attack.

"It was a hell of a battle and they were outnumbered significantly but they held their ground. Because they held their ground, they were successful in cutting off the retreat of the German army through the gap," Currie told CBC News.

In an undated photo, Currie shows his son his Victoria Cross. (Provided by the Currie family)

"He always said it was a team effort. It wasn't just him, it was who he had with him," Currie said.

Currie was informed he was being awarded the Victoria Cross when he was still on the battlefield.

He was whisked across the English Channel and appeared at Buckingham Palace. King George VI bestowed the honour on Currie, who was still wearing his tank uniform at the time.

Currie died in 1986 and in 1989 his wife, Isabel, sold the medal to a collector for an unknown amount.

"I think my dad died and I think she panicked financially. And she was approached, I understand, by a dealer from the Toronto area — and we didn't know that this had gone down," Currie said.

It wasn't until the medal was put up for auction last September that the family realized Currie's widow, who is 105 and living in Ottawa, was no longer in possession of the medal.

"Of course we're not a moneyed family, we couldn't buy it back," Currie said.

The Victoria Cross is one of the rarest medals in the world and the highest military honour awarded by the United Kingdom.

David Currie, whose father was awarded a Victoria Cross for his service in the Second World War, stands in his parents' home in Ottawa and holds one of the many pieces his father painted after he returned from war. (Kristen Everson/CBC)

The Veterans Affairs Canada website says 99 Canadians have been awarded the Victoria Cross.

Now the Currie family hopes the government will pay to keep the precious medal from leaving the country.

Former NDP MP and veterans advocate Peter Stoffer said this is a no-brainer for the Liberal government.

"Let's face it. They found $5.6 million to build a temporary hockey rink in front of Parliament Hill, this is something that I believe should stay in Canada — so that future Canadians can see and bear reverence to this tremendous story of the individual who received it," Stoffer said.

Export permit required

The government will likely have the chance to purchase the medal if it chooses to through a Canadian Heritage Fund.

Currently, Currie's Victoria Cross is being held in a safety deposit box in Kemptville, Ont., while the new owner waits for an export permit.

Sharilyn Ingram, chair of the Canadian Cultural Property Export Review Board, said her board will make an assessment if the medal is of "outstanding significance and national importance."

If the board decides that there is a possibility that a Canadian museum might make an offer for the medal, then the board can impose an export delay two to six months to allow a Canadian institution time to make an offer.

Canadian Heritage also has a special fund to assist a museum in making a bid.

Extraordinary stories

Ingram said if an institution "wishes to make an offer on something that the export of which has been blocked, they can apply to the department of Canadian Heritage. And and it's usually ... it's about a 50/50 split." Ingram said.  

If no offer is received by the end of the delay period, the medal can be exported.

"I call it a very Canadian compromise because on one hand, we're trying to preserve Canadian heritage. On the other hand, we're trying to respect individual property rights," Ingram said.

Ingram does concede the medals are valuable.

"Behind every Victoria Cross there is an absolutely extraordinary story. I mean it's hard to learn the background for why one of those crosses was awarded without for myself getting weepy, because they are extraordinary," Ingram said.

The board will hold a special meeting before the end of January to address the Currie medal.

Currie's family wants to keep the medal he was awarded in Canada. (courtesy of: Tanya Ursual)