When do YOU start collecting beautiful old passports? Take a closer look at this article to learn more about the topic.
My name is Tom Topol, and I research and collect old passports. What is a passport collector? Well, that’s someone who collects old historical travel documents, commonly known as passports. After leafing through some old passports at a flea market in Kyoto, Japan, I began my collection since I have visited many flea markets in search of travel documents. My collection/archive contains more than 800 passports and is always growing.
I am a member of the Ephemera Society in the U.K. and the U.S. In the meantime, I am a well-recognized expert on passports and their history with several publications, often for the security printing industry. I consult collectors, foundations, museums, and news agencies on the topic, but I also cover current news on passports and visas, border security, and security printing.
My core focus is on German passports. But history’s wars, shifting borders, and evolving political systems have left behind passports from places that are now known by different names or defunct at all. Such documents tell the story of an ever-changing world.
One of the most interesting specimens of my collection shows how different travel and security may have been within the German Empire in 1916. A document issued from Duchy Saxe Coburg-Gotha features a photo of a young woman with her dog. Clearly, rules about passport photos were less strict than they are today. My website explains that passport pictures were introduced in Germany in 1915, and any picture, so long as they fit on the document, could be used at the time.
Fast forward 43 years, and a passport from East Germany issued in Berlin shows a stricter organization. The passport featured in the slideshow was issued to a dancer who traveled quite frequently. One of her trips was to Iraq, which was unusual in 1959.
Another interesting travel document was a passport from the Free State of Fiume, an 11-square mile Italian territory between 1920 and 1924. The area was renamed Rijeka after World War II and is located in what is now Croatia.
Old passports are ‘artworks,’ as I describe them. Why? Because no passport looks the same at that time, as they were issued manually and not automatically like today. Back then, you had beautiful hand-writing, colorful border stamps, and the passport picture was always a highlight”. “Today, you are not even allowed to smile on your picture. In the U.S., you are now not even allowed to wear your eyeglasses.”
Studying passports for 15+ years has given me a sense of if the document’s bearer was someone special. The type of passport, family name, and stamps all give the collector clues as to whether I should begin digging deeper to find an interesting story. The huge passport from 1915, for example, belonged to a German ambassador in former Constantinople, Count Hans von Wangenheim. The photograph alone is nearly the size of a postcard. Wangenheim witnessed the Armenian genocide and passed away days after returning to Constantinople with exactly this passport. I also own passports issued to Elton John, Robin Williams, Glenn Ford, and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, and British Secretary of State Arthur Henderson. Henderson’s passport had a stamp from Sweden when he traveled to Stockholm to receive the Nobel Prize.
As you can see, passport collecting is a broad topic. If you want to start your own collection, then I can support you. My strict advice is to always “Collect QUALITY before QUANTITY.” No matter what you collect, a collection is always also an investment, and you want to gain value with your collection over time – not lose value.
“Define a collection focus.” This is really important as otherwise you get lost in buying everything, and that costs money. Educate yourself on the things you collect. Knowledge is as important as a precious collectible itself. Check your local flea market, garage sale, etc. Online auction platforms are a great source. Please explore my website as you will find amazing stories and great collectibles. See these old passports by yourself, and you will understand why I am so passionate about old travel documents.
“Tom’s website, Passport-collector.com, is a goldmine of information on historic and important travel documents.”
– Businessinsider UK –
Drop me a line if you have further questions.
FAQ Passport History
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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?
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 😉
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...