When it comes to ephemera, there seems to be an interest in just about everything. Even so, passport collecting has only begun to attract widespread attention. I started my collection because I think of old passports as works of art: Each has distinctive handwriting, colorful revenue stamps, and of course a photograph of the bearer.
I have a special interest in German documents from the 18th to 20th centuries. My oldest passport was issued in southern Germany in 1793 for a French nobleman, who appeared to have been trying to escape the French Revolution.
Some collectors search for documents from obsolete countries or periods of rule, such as French Indochina. Others look for variations in a particular country’s passports, and there are also collectors who focus on diplomatic passports and other types.
Family or group passports with several photographs are also collectible. For example, I own a Yugoslavian passport issued in 1933 with 66 photographs. It was the only document needed for a group of 66 people who were traveling to Greece. Of course, times have changed, and today everyone must carry his or her own passport.
EBay is still the best source for passports, although they have some restrictions on government documents. To my knowledge, the highest price ever paid on eBay for a passport was $7,001 for a Chinese rebel document. Local flea markets and antique dealers are also a good source.
Despite what some people think, passport collecting is not illegal. There is a statement on most passports issued since 1970 along the lines of “This passport is property of the issuing country…” Whether the passport has your picture on it or you are a collector, you are technically just the bearer of the document. Even so, most government offices will return your old passport after they have marked it “Cancelled.”
I’ll leave you with one bit of advice: Collect quality instead of quantity and always be curious.
(Tom Topol collects travel documents and writes about his finds at Passport-Collector.com)