What’s It Worth: Military Challenge Coins

Military Challenge Coins

Do you collect military challenge coins, or are you the steward of someone else’s collection? We frequently see challenge coins among the collectibles and artifacts of military families, and they are also collected by history buffs and military collectors. These collections range from a small handful of meaningful coins to elaborate displays of hundreds of coins, and everything in between.

Military Challenge Coins regularly appear for sale at thrift stores, estate sales, and online. Mid Atlantic Military Antiques owner and military antique collector Tim Frank has seen thousands of military challenge coins in his career. He offers a brief history of challenge coins and tips for determining their value.

History of Military Challenge Coins

Military challenge coins are metal medallions that are typically offered to service members by their superior officers. Traditionally, the coins are tied to a particular leader, mission, unit or organization.

The tradition of issuing, trading and collecting challenge coins has become common among branches of the military and government. There are various stories about their origin in the military. One popular legend dates to 1917, when an American aviator minted coins with the unit insignia for his squadron to carry. As the legend goes, the coin later saved his life after he was shot down by the Germans: When he reached French lines, he was almost executed as a spy until someone recognized the coin.

Military Challenge coins existed during World War II, Korea and Vietnam, but only a few units had them. They symbolized membership in the unit and were only awarded to members or distinguished guests. Over time, the tradition spread to units in all branches of service, and even into non-military organizations.

Many Generals and Admirals present Commander’s coins for excellence that can be presented on the spot. At gatherings of military personnel and veterans, someone will inevitably announce, “coin check” at which point everyone produces their coin. Tradition dictates that a failure to produce a coin may result in one having to buy a round of drinks.

In the 1990s, the use of challenge coins greatly expanded. President Bill Clinton had numerous coin display racks in the Oval Office, and actually had his own coin that he presented; a tradition that continues with each President since.

Why are Military Challenge Coins Difficult to Value?

For many who receive or earn them, military challenge coins have a sentimental value that money cannot buy. I have my own display of coins that were given to me over the years that I will never sell.

However, there is a robust collector’s market for all kinds of challenge coins. Challenge coins have become very commonplace today; police departments, athletic teams, private companies, clubs, and schools all make them. A collector once described challenge coins as “the beanie-babies of the military collectables market,” because so many people collect them, and their values go up and down.

The ever-changing popularity of these coins are the fun part of the collector’s quest, but it also makes it hard for the uninitiated to figure out how much they could be worth. For those new to the military challenge coin market, here are a few guidelines:

  • The size, color, or metal of the medallion is irrelevant, because the value is determined by who issued it.
  • Coins from current military leaders are popular and rare because everyone holds on to them. Once retired, coins of military leaders tend to greatly decrease in value.
  • The value of more unusual coins can regularly fluctuate in response to current events and the story behind the coin. For example, a few years ago, a scandal put an Army general in the headlines. At the time, his coin reached a value of over $600 on eBay. Today, his coin routinely sells for under $50.

So, How Much are Challenge Coins Worth?

With all of the above caveats aside, there are some general truths about valuing military challenge coins.  Common and plentiful coins will hover around the same value ($5 to $15 apiece) The coins that likely place on the low end of the value scale include those issued by:

  • Veterans Groups
  • Military Supply Units
  • Military Artillery Units
  • Military Engineers

Higher value coins can range from $25 to $500 or more.  These types of coins include those issued by:

  • Intelligence Units
  • Commanding Generals or Admirals
  • Special Forces
  • Special Operations
  • Navy Seals
  • Airborne Senior Leaders

If you want to pare down or sell a military challenge coin collection, it could be worth your time to call a collector or dealer. Because the values fluctuate according to what’s in favor with collectors at any given time, it’s difficult to know where the price is going to go. A reputable and professional dealer will be able to tell if you have a treasured coin, and will often make you an offer the whole collection.

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