Interview courtesy of the Ephemera Blog, Marty Weil’s great information resource on ephemera collecting and collectors, and a member of our Hall of Fame. Andreas Praefcke’s site Carthalia is also a member of our Hall of Fame.
Andreas Praefcke (Ravensburg, Germany) collects postcards of old and new theatre buildings worldwide. His complete collection can be seen on his website Carthalia. I spoke to him recently about how he got interested in this unique and interesting postcard collecting theme, how he finds cards, and what some of his favorites are.
Q: How did you become interested in collecting postcards featuring Theater buildings?
A: Probably my greatest passion is going to the opera wherever and whenever possible. I have also always liked to visit flea markets, mostly looking for used books about opera, theatre, and regional history. Browsing through the flea market stands, I became aware of the postcard as a collectible item, and that’s where I saw some old postcards of theatre buildings. I thought it was interesting how the theatres, all of which I knew from visiting them, looked like some 80 years ago. That difference is bigger than one would think, since most of the bigger German cities were pretty much completely destroyed in World War II. Since postcards are cheap, and sometimes dirt cheap at least compared to books, art prints, stamps, I bought a couple and started to search for more. However, I guess you must be born a collector to really get into it. When the eBay craze began a couple of years later, I was happy to find more and more online, and that’s when the collection really grew and became increasingly international. At this time, I also started to put the collection online as a virtual museum. After years, I’m still not halfway finished with the presentation.
Q. (Weil/ephemera): It’s a wonderful idea for the focus of a collection. What challenges or obstacles do you encounter in collecting? How do you overcome these challenges?
A. (Praefcke): Two traditional collectors’ obstacles, money and shelving space, are not as important as they may be for others’ collections. Postcards, and even the best ones to fill gaps in the collection, can often be found for pennies or even nothing, e. g., advertisements postcards offered for free in theatre lobbies. Space is not much of a challenge, since the whole collection fits into a dozen of cardboard boxes that can be easily stored in a quiet corner at home.
A bigger obstacle is–besides the constant lack of time to collect and upload–a result of the scope of the collection: it’s almost impossible to find the really interesting stuff in traditional postcards dealers’ shops. They are mostly divided in a topographical section–ordered by country, city, zip code, etc.–and a topical section (e. g., airplanes, actors, musical instruments, etc.). Now I collect topographical postcards in a topical way. Sometimes there is a section “Opera Houses” or “Theatre buildings”, but mostly these include just the most obvious ones that I already have plenty of cards from. Prices in stores are often quite high, much owed to the fact that the dealers already sorted their thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands of cards, for you to find easily. However, I cannot find them easily but would have to browse through pretty much all the cards again. Since I don’t want to do that in pricey stores, I tend to buy cheap cards on flea markets, ask my friends to bring cards with them from holidays, and find my stuff on the Internet using full text search.
A minor obstacle for that lies in the nature of the German language: in English, searching for “theatre or theater” gives you pretty much everything you want: “National Theatre”, “State Theatre”, “Shakespeare Theatre” etc. In German, these words are glued together–”Nationaltheater”, “Staatstheater”, “Lessingtheater”–and most search engines won’t allow you to search for “anything ending in theater.”
Dear eBay, true internationalization is not just putting a German interface in front of your English search engines.
Q. (Weil/ephemera): You make an excellent point, Andreas. It hadn’t thought of those search issues. I’m sure a lot of other collectors will commiserate with you. What are your favorite items in your collection?
A. (Praefcke): As most collectors, I do like beautiful old cards of beautiful architecture, but I also value modern cards of some concrete nightmare that you cannot help but wonder who built this crap and why put it on a postcard.
The collection features pretty much everything about theatre apart from what is going on on stage. The more unlikely, the more I like it. A nice example shows the rotating stage of the London Coliseum and the guy who operates it, under the main stage.
If I had to chose one favorite item, I might go for a 1902 postcard of my local theatre, the Konzerthaus in Ravensburg, for purely sentimental reasons: it is a theatre that I visit regularly to see drama and concerts, and it’s where I saw my first operas. The card is wonderfully designed, and gives you a good idea of the overall mood of the 1900s. The theatre in this little town was designed by the then world-famous Viennese architects Fellner & Helmer, who built dozens of theatres throughout the Austrian-Hungarian monarchy and Germany, many of them still extant, and most of them present in my postcard collection. The Ravensburg postcard is also interesting for the local theatergoer since you see that there used to be windows over the balcony that have been removed during a rebuilding not long after the card was designed. Finally, it features another nice detail: the scenery shown is the main square of Ravensburg.
Q. (Weil/ephemera): What’s your advice for achieving success as a collector?
A. (Praefcke): Collect what you really like and know about–or want to know about–and not so much what you are recommended by dealers or in books. A collection is not an archive, you don’t have to be complete, or single-minded as to the scope. If you like it, it’s right.
Just collecting and amassing stuff may not be enough: Sharing the collection via the Internet is a good way to get in contact with fellow collectors, plus it adds to the need to get deep inside the topic. The more you research about every single item in the collection. Find out where the theatre or city is, when it was built, if it still exists, etc…the more you may enjoy it.
Q. (Weil/ephemera): That’s great advice, Andreas. What resources do you recommend for collectors of theater postcards?
A. (Praefcke): For identifying theatres and finding gaps it is important to have some standard books about theatres and theatre building. The Theatres Trust Guide to British Theatres 1750-1950 is just marvelous. Unfortunately, something that complete and yet concise has not been published in most other countries. A little bibliography on my website gives some more titles that I recommend and that can be of use for the theatre postcards collector. Many older works on local theatre history are freely accessible in online libraries. I have compiled a list of examples on a Wikisource page.
Since I do not collect rare and expensive postcards, I do not know much about books that specialize on postcards. As there are millions of different cards, and probably dozens of thousands of my topic, there is not and cannot be any definitive catalog.
Q. (Weil/ephemera): It’s been a pleasure talking with you, Andreas. I appreciate your thoughtful answers. I’m sure a lot of postcard collectors and theater buffs will find this interview particularly interesting.
Do you have an article you’d like us to publish as a guest column in The Collectors Weekly? Let us know.