Passport History: The World Is Flat

Passport History Expert Topol

Tom Topol quotes Goethe (see his passport here), who said, “Collectors are happy people”. Judging from the happiness this passion seems to arouse in him, the German polymath was exactly right. This history buff had always dreamt of starting a collection. His first objects of desire were old East German coins, which he resold after German reunification when interest in such articles was at a peak. Collecting was a joy for him, but also an investment.

A Flea Market in Japan Passport History Expert Topol 

Then, in 2003, Topol happened upon an old Japanese passport in a box of miscellaneous old documents. The passport had been issued in 1934 and bore the photograph of a young woman wearing a kimono. In excellent condition, the booklet inspired him to embark on a quest to find other old passports. Unquestionably less conventional than stamps, his collection intrigued and fascinated the people around him.

“People react differently when I show them my hobby. Many are immediately fascinated because it’s such an unusual and evocative subject. The collection of old passports is certainly a niche pastime,” says Topol.

He carefully stored his collection in a humidity-controlled bank safe, primarily consisting of German passports issued through 1995. Some were issued by East Germany, while others came from extraordinary or extinct nations and territories. With over seven hundred items in his archive – the oldest dating to 1646.

Centerpieces Passport History Expert Topol 

Tom Topol has amassed an important history of passports. When asked what is the centerpiece of his large collection, he invariably cites two documents.

Francis II.

One is a passport from 1797 issued by Francis II, the last Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire and first Emperor of Austria, the only double emperor in history. This unique status makes it a collector’s item of inestimable value, a true “museum piece” according to Topol.

John Watts Young

The other is the passport of the American astronaut John Watts Young (1930–2018). Young holds the record for the longest service as an astronaut at NASA: forty-two years. His track record is truly impressive, with six space flights aboard three different spacecraft: Gemini, Apollo and the space shuttle. He was also the ninth man to set foot on the moon.

“Eight billion people now live on planet Earth, but only a dozen have been to the moon. Can you imagine?” marvels Topol.

The passport in his collection dates to a period when Young was just a rookie astronaut, well before his name had become legendary.

Topol’s passion for old travel documents does not merely regard the physical item, it also extends into historical research about their owners and the ambassadors or consuls who issued them. Thanks to a website dedicated to his collection, Topol is often able to establish contact with people acquainted with or related to the passport holder, thus gaining information and insight into their biographies. Passport History Expert Topol 

Mary Kingsley and Paul Gmelin

When asked which passport owner he would have liked to have met in person, Tom chooses Mary Kingsley (1862–1900) “because she could describe just how long and difficult travelling was at the time, especially for a woman alone.” Unfortunately, he does not currently have any additional documentation that once was hers.

The other name that comes to mind is Paul Gmelin (1859–1937), a German immigrant to the United States, whose passport is in his collection. Paul Gmelin was one of the architects who designed some of the first skyscrapers in the United States in the early twentieth century.

Tom Topol would love to speak with him about all the reasons that prompted him to sail across the Atlantic to the American continent to embark on a new career and a new life.

More than a collector of administrative documents, Tom Topol has amassed an exceptional compendium of the stories of people’s lives through the works of art that are their old passports. Tom is well familiar with the theme of travelling, having spent a great deal of his time on business trips. Passport History Expert Topol 

Nowadays, he travels only for pleasure. And which country, among those represented by the passports in his collection, would he most like to visit?

North Korea! Because no one knows how long this nation will continue to exist in its current form, and it would allow him to take a trip back in time to find himself immersed in what might seem like the 1950s.

Collecting old passports has helped Tom enrich his knowledge of geography, travel and politics. His expertise and experience have earned him a solid international reputation.

International Recognition

Journalists, magazines, and organizations interested in writing articles frequently approach him. In addition, practitioners of the seventh art often contact him, seeking guidance on reproducing historical passports. Take a look at his impressive reference list.

“One of the projects was my assistance for the U.S. State Department for their consular exhibition in Washington, D.C., From Pirates to Passports: A Timeless Commitment to Service.”

His involvement earned him an Award from the U.S. Department of State for his invaluable assistance.

Through flea markets to empty attics by way of online communities or meetings among collectors, Tom Topol has succeeded in creating a one-of-a-kind collection. His hunt for documents has led him to organize many meetings.

Sigmund Freud Passport History Expert Topol 

One day, Tom was contacted via his website by a British woman claiming to be in possession of a passport once belonging to Sigmund Freud. “Sounds very exciting, right? I asked for detailed photos, and it turned out it was a bogus document.”

The data page, which featured an excellent photo of Freud, was very well executed, but the other pages had stamps that were too recent. It was actually a British passport with modified photo and personal information.

“By the way, Freud never had a British passport. This is one of only two fake passports in my collection. A curiosity!” says Tom.

In Tom’s eyes, today’s passports have become standardized travel documents, far removed from the works of art they once were. Not only were they once written by hand, but they were also embellished with various colorful border stamps. And of course, there is the beauty of the vintage photos that they bear (passports have had photos for only about a hundred years).

Fantastic wax seals and watermarks adorn the oldest documents. Today, Tom is trying to complete his collection with all types of passport issued by the German Empire. The fact that he is now missing only two testifies to the incredible wealth of documents in his possession.

The Author

They are so rare that after twenty years of searching, he has yet to see a single exemplar.If this article has inspired you to learn more about passports, remember that Tom authored the book “Let Pass or Die,” an indispensable work referencing the great Genghis Khan, who bestowed his envoys with a metal passport known as a ‘Paiza’.

The inscription means, “I am the emissary of the Khan. If you defy me, you die!”. Consider yourself forewarned!


*Take a look at the original article, featured in Vacheron & Constantin*, Collectors’ Island No.8

*Vacheron & Constantin is the oldest watch manufacturer in the world, founded 1755 in Geneva, Switzerland. The exclusive Collector’s Island magazine (rather an art book), edited by Vacheron Constantin, presents in a yearly issue, of only 800 copies, the most beautiful art collections in the world. Only 80 collectors worldwide have been portrait, and I was ONE of them.


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FAQ Passport History
Passport collection, passport renewal, old passports for sale, vintage passport, emergency passport renewal, same day passport, passport application, 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...