Hello, I am Tom Topol, a seasoned passport history expert and author. Since 2003, I have been fascinated by the “Art” and history of old passports, which I discovered at a flea market in Kyoto, Japan. My passion for passport history has driven me to study and explore this field extensively.
“Old travel documents are not just pieces of paper, but they tell the stories of their bearers. These documents provide information about the person’s profession, their destination, and the reason for their travel. They also reveal where the passport was issued and by whom. Additionally, there are many questions related to geographical and political issues, processing, and security printing. Therefore, travel documents are not just a collection of papers, but they are a source of advanced research on travel documents.”
Passport History and Collection
Nowadays, passports are standardized, but if we look back at passports from the 19th century and earlier, they were unique pieces of artwork. Handwritten on fine paper and adorned with colorful stamps, signatures, and beautiful photographs. Each passport was a work of art in itself. However, it is important to note that collectors of passports have to define the range of their collection, as it is impossible to have every single passport from that time period. My collection has about 700 historical travel documents, with the earliest one dating back to 1646.
I have worked on several projects, including assisting the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C. with their historic passport exhibition, for which I received an award from the U.S. Government. Furthermore, on a project for the world’s oldest watchmaker, Swiss company Vacheron Constantin, and numerous museums around the world.
This site aims to establish a source for collectors, historians, researchers, and other interested parties to share and exchange information, knowledge, and collectibles and raise awareness of passport history and collecting as a leisure activity.
Passports As Government Property
Most countries declare by law that passports are government property and may be confiscated, withdrawn, or revoked at any time, usually on specified grounds. A confiscation, withdrawal, or revocation is generally subject to judicial review. The definition of “Government property” is stated in most passports or country-specific passport laws, and came up (to my best knowledge) within the last 30–40 years. Old passports (100 years old and more) do not have such a statement at all – not on the document nor in the passport laws at that time. Tom Topol, passport expert
Is Passport Collecting Legal?
YES, don’t worry, it is – as long the documents are obsolete/canceled!
I contacted several government agencies, and they often cannot clearly communicate. It is safe to say that passport collecting is “accepted” as long as you have a good reason for your collection, e.g., for historical research. Usually, you will get your old and obsolete marked passport back when you pick up your new one. Passport offices are not interested in their “property” by collecting “old paper.” About me Tom Topol passport history expert
Statement Of The German Interior Department
“The retention of title extends only to passports and identity cards of the Federal Republic of Germany. The passports and identity cards pattern from before 1945 and the former German Democratic Republic (GDR – East Germany) are very different from the current ones. Those “historical” documents are therefore NOT protected.”
The statement of the German Interior Department can be used as an example for travel documents of other countries. However, each country has its views and laws that must not conform to this example! Patterns after 1945 until the 1980s are very different from the current one, so there should also be no retention of title, in my opinion.
Documents presented on this website are obsolete and only for research, education & collection purposes! I do NOT buy or sell any biometric passports! Selling/purchasing current and valid passports is illegal. About me Tom Topol passport history expert
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...