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