Collectors may pay a lot for old passports

Passport history old passports

Tom Topol Passport history old passports
Tom Topol collects old passports. The passport of the Hanseatic City of Bremen from 1920 belonged to a telephone operator; the photo shows her with a guitar.

Anyone who needs a new passport goes to the citizens’ office, applies, waits two weeks, gets the document. The old, expired passport is canceled and disposed of – it’s the end of the story. For Tom Topol, however, this is where things really begin: he has been collecting old, expired passports for years, especially those from the GDR. So far, he has amassed 700 of them. It’s a special hobby that also provides exciting insights into history. Passport history old passports

At first glance, passport collecting seems like a very unusual hobby, yet some people engage in it. “Worldwide, there are probably a few thousand,” says Tom Topol. “But of course, this area of collecting is still nowhere near as widespread as stamps or coins.” Perhaps many think passports are standardized – and therefore, boring? If you think so, you’re wrong: “From today’s perspective, old passports are small works of art,” says Topol. “Each one was unique. In the past, they were issued by hand. And every stamp, every visa tells its own story.” Passport history old passports

Prussia passport 1916 Passport history old passports
The passport of a factory owner from Hildesheim (Kingdom of Prussia) 1916 shows the owner with a hunting rifle and hunting dog.

Tom came to his hobby when he was cleaning out his parents’ basement years ago. “That’s when I found their old passports and ID cards. That kind of thing is a family history, of course, and you don’t throw it away.” Unknowingly, he laid the foundation for the collection, even if the fire wasn’t lit until later. “I always traveled a lot for work – and discovered an old passport at a flea market in Kyoto, Japan. The Japanese characters looked great, and the inside was emblazoned with a Japanese woman’s passport picture in a kimono. And the piece was in fantastic condition – as if it had been printed just yesterday.” Passport history old passports

It was the beginning of his passion, he says. “Because I saw: old passports are thrown away by most people,” he says. And that’s even though they were once valuable and historically significant. The collector was drawn repeatedly to flea markets or sales sites on the Internet from then on. “Later, I also came into contact with other collectors. Everyone has their own specialty – some collect only diplomatic passports, others only specimens that once belonged to famous people.” For celebrity passports, he says, America is a good market. A Marilyn Monroe passport once went under the hammer here for $115,000, Topol says. Albert Einstein’s document for $93,000. “It’s all a question of money,” he says. Passport history old passports

Last East German passport
One of the last passports of the GDR was issued two days before reunification on October 1, 1990.

He himself specializes in passports from Germany and the GDR. Because “extinct countries and territories” are fascinating for collectors, he says – and the GDR is one of them. “The latest GDR passports are mass-produced and still easy to find today. It gets exciting with passports from before 1964.” Of interest to him, he says, are specimens that document travel activities. “I’m always amazed at the visas that can be found in passports from the 1950s. There you could travel to Burma as a GDR citizen – and to other bizarre countries. I didn’t know that was possible in the past.”

However, he keeps his hands off new modern passports – especially in Germany, data protection regulations set limits to his passion for collecting. “For example, when apartments are being cleared out, everything can be recycled – except personal documents,” he says. But in the case of old passports that have long expired, collecting is not a problem, he says. Topol was in contact with various ministries in Germany, Switzerland, and other countries. Passport history old passports

US astronaut Young passport
The passport from 1963. It belonged to John W. Young, NASA’s longest-serving astronaut and moonwalker.

In the meantime, he has written the book “Let Pass or Die” about his collection, and he also helped design an exhibition in Washington – and he documents special finds here on his website. The collection, which has now grown to around 700 pieces, includes one of the first passports issued to ordinary citizens from the GDR, a piece from 1955, as well as one of the very last passports issued by the GDR – it was issued two days before reunification, on October 1, 1990. Topol also found a document of the US astronaut John W. Young, one of the longest-serving astronauts of NASA. The ministerial passport of Theodor Lehmann, delegate of the Versailles peace negotiations, issued in 1919. Passport history old passports

Tom Topol -

The collector is also after funny pieces. A passport of the Free Hanseatic City of Bremen belonged to a woman named Sophie Dorothee Schaper. In the photo, she has a guitar in her hand. It finds like this that makes the hobby exciting for Tom. “Passport photos became mandatory in Germany in 1915, but at that time there were no binding regulations on what such a photo should look like,” he says. Another passport in his collection, he says, shows a hunter – with a hunting dog and gun. “And today, you’re not even allowed to laugh in the photos.” But stamps and visas also tell stories. “A traveled passport shows things about geography at the time. How long did someone travel where and why? How many days did the trip take? That’s the kind of information you can derive from it.” Passport history old passports

This article was originally published by the German newspaper Berliner Zeitung 27.10.20 – Florian Thalmann and was translated into English by Tom Topol.



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FAQ Passport History pasaporte passeport паспорт 护照 パスポート جواز سفر पासपोर्ट

1. What are the earliest known examples of passports, and how have they evolved?

The word "passport" came up only in the mid 15th Century. Before that, such documents were safe conducts, recommendations or protection letters. On a practical aspect, the earliest passport I have seen was from the mid 16th Century. Read more...

2. Are there any notable historical figures or personalities whose passports are highly sought after by collectors?

Every collector is doing well to define his collection focus, and yes, there are collectors looking for Celebrity passports and travel documents of historical figures like Winston Churchill, Brothers Grimm, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Read more...

3. How did passport designs and security features change throughout different periods in history, and what impact did these changes have on forgery prevention?

"Passports" before the 18th Century had a pure functional character. Security features were, in the best case, a watermark and a wax seal. Forgery, back then, was not an issue like it is nowadays. Only from the 1980s on, security features became a thing. A state-of-the-art passport nowadays has dozens of security features - visible and invisible. Some are known only by the security document printer itself. Read more...

4. What are some of the rarest and most valuable historical passports that have ever been sold or auctioned?

Lou Gehrig, Victor Tsoi, Marilyn Monroe, James Joyce, and Albert Einstein when it comes to the most expensive ones. Read more...

5. How do diplomatic passports differ from regular passports, and what makes them significant to collectors?

Such documents were often held by officials in high ranks, like ambassadors, consuls or special envoys. Furthermore, these travel documents are often frequently traveled. Hence, they hold a tapestry of stamps or visas. Partly from unusual places.

6. Can you provide insights into the stories behind specific historical passports that offer unique insights into past travel and migration trends?

A passport tells the story of its bearer and these stories can be everything - surprising, sad, vivid. Isabella Bird and her travels (1831-1904) or Mary Kingsley, a fearless Lady explorer.

7. What role did passports play during significant historical events, such as wartime travel restrictions or international treaties?

During war, a passport could have been a matter of life or death. Especially, when we are looking into WWII and the Holocaust. And yes, during that time, passports and similar documents were often forged to escape and save lives. Example...

8. How has the emergence of digital passports and biometric identification impacted the world of passport collecting?

Current modern passports having now often a sparkling, flashy design. This has mainly two reasons. 1. Improved security and 2. Displaying a countries' heritage, icons, and important figures or achievements. I can fully understand that those modern documents are wanted, especially by younger collectors.

9. Are there any specialized collections of passports, such as those from a specific country, era, or distinguished individuals?

Yes, the University of Western Sidney Library has e.g. a passport collection of the former prime minister Hon Edward Gough Whitlam and his wife Margaret. They are all diplomatic passports and I had the pleasure to apprise them. I hold e.g. a collection of almost all types of the German Empire passports (only 2 types are still missing). Also, my East German passport collection is quite extensive with pretty rare passport types.

10. Where can passport collectors find reliable resources and reputable sellers to expand their collection and learn more about passport history?

A good start is eBay, Delcampe, flea markets, garage or estate sales. The more significant travel documents you probably find at the classic auction houses. Sometimes I also offer documents from my archive/collection. See offers... As you are already here, you surely found a great source on the topic 😉

Other great sources are: Scottish Passports, The Nansen passport, The secret lives of diplomatic couriers

11. Is vintage passport collecting legal? What are the regulations and considerations collectors should know when acquiring historical passports?

First, it's important to stress that each country has its own laws when it comes to passports. Collecting old vintage passports for historical or educational reasons is safe and legal, or at least tolerated. More details on the legal aspects are here...

Does this article spark your curiosity about passport collecting and the history of passports? With this valuable information, you have a good basis to start your own passport collection.

Question? Contact me...

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