The study and collecting of postcards is called "deltiology." Postcards were first printed in the 19th century, but it took some time for them to gain in popularity; many people did not like the idea of writing notes which anyone could read! The value of old postcards is dependent on a number of factors, including their condition, rarity, age, and subject matter.
Factors Affecting Value
Similar to other types of vintage and antique collectibles, postcard values are based on a specific set of criteria that affect the value of antique and vintage postcards. The following are the most important.
One of the first things an appraiser or collector will notice about your postcard is its condition. Cards in fine shape, with no discoloration, foxing, tears, or other damage fetch the highest prices. Some cards had flocking, glitter or gilding, and those sections of the card need to have as much of the original material as possible.
A card which looks perfect could be a reproduction, so be careful when buying. Damaged cards bring less money or can make the card nearly worthless.
The oldest known picture postcard sold in 2002 at the London Stamp Exchange auction for just under $50,000 dollars. Posted in 1840, the postcard's value lay in its significant age, as well as the fact that it was among the earliest cards printed and mailed.
Pioneer postcards, which were printed before July 1, 1898 in the U.S., also have high monetary value. The cards were used as advertising pieces (which is still done today), and often carried information about a shop or a sale. They had writing on only one side, since U.S. law forbade any writing on the address side of a postcard until the early 20th century. These older cards are quite valuable with individual cards sometimes bringing more than $400.
Determining age is not easy, even if a card has a date printed on it. Many cards were sold for years after their printing, and the postmark date shows only when something was mailed, not when it was made. Guidebooks to purchasing postcards are excellent resources for identifying age.
As with all antique items, rarity brings up the value of postcards. If only a few of the cards were printed or only a small number have survived the ages, your card may be very valuable. However, rarity goes hand-in-hand with other characteristics; if only a single card was printed, that makes it rare. But if the topic is uninteresting, or the postcard is newer, then rarity doesn't really matter because it may be the only one, but no one wants it.
Subject matter of the card is another very significant factor in determining its value. Cards that feature iconic moments in history or come from long-gone places offer a glimpse into the past. Collectors will pay top dollar for certain subjects, such as vintage ocean liners, and these cards may fetch more money at auction.
Collectors may focus on specific topics, such as cats, trains, sports, or holidays. Halloween postcards are among the most collectible, with their images of devils, black cats and odd things like cabbages. They can easily bring more than $150 apiece at auctions.
A postmark can help to establish the age of a postcard, and along with the message on the back, it offers provenance for collectors. However, the type and condition of the postmark can affect the value.
- An easy-to-read early postmark can indicate a card that is worth more than average.
- Postmarks made by machines that no longer exist, or from unusual places, can add value.
- Fancy cancels, such as a hand-drawn cancel, can add anywhere from $10 to hundreds of dollars to the value of a postcard.
There are collectors who only collect postmarks, so when buying a card with a rare cancelation stamp you might have extra competition.
The following other factors can affect the value of your card:
- Whether the artist's signature is included: Well-known artists such as Ellen Clapsaddle are extremely collectible, with many of their postcards selling for $50 and up.
- The country where it was made: English, American, German, postcards were mailed all over the world. Unusual cards from unusual places can bring more money, into the thousands of dollars.
- Whether it is a photo card or printed: Photocards of very rare topics can bring over a thousand dollars apiece. Crime scenes, train crashes, baseball, early photos of a city, are all extremely collectible.
How to Assign Value to an Antique Postcard
Although assigning value to a postcard isn't always simple, the process itself is fairly easy to follow. If you're hoping to find out how much your card is worth, follow these steps.
1. Examine the Card
Note the condition of the card, the picture on it, and identifying factors, and the age. These will all affect its value.
2. Look Up the Card
Postcard price and identification guides are useful tools in determining the current market value of postcards. They also contain information and pictures that help with identifying the cards.
The following are several price guides for postcards available from Amazon:
- The Postcard Price Guide, 4th Ed., A Comprehensive Reference by J. L. Mashburn
- The Artist-Signed Postcard Price Guide, Second Edition: A Comprehensive Reference by J. L. Mashburn
- Vintage Postcards for the Holidays by Robert and Claudette Reed
- Collector's Guide to Post Cards by Jane Wood
- The Golden Age of Postcards Early 1900s by Benjamin H. Penniston
- Linen Postcards: Images of the American Dream Price Guide by Mark Wether
- The Encyclopedia of Antique Postcards/Price Guide by Susan Brown Nickolson
- Black Postcard Price Guide by J. L. Mashburn
- Rare and Expensive Postcards: a Price Guide by John M. Kaduck
3. Assess Market Demand
After you've identified your card, go on an auction site like eBay to look for similar examples or check out recent specialty auctions, such as those held at Cherryland Auctions. Find out how these cards are selling and the prices buyers are paying for them.
The website Valuable Rare Postcards lists highest prices for paid for postcards monthly.
4. Professional Appraisal
If you suspect your card or your postcard collection carries a lot of value, it's always a good idea to have it professionally appraised. If you'll be selling the postcard, this will help you get a fair price. If you'll be keeping it, you'll know how to list it on your insurance.
A Glimpse Into the Past
Old postcards, no matter their value, offer a glimpse into the past. Whether your collection is worth $10 or $1000, you'll find that its value encompasses more than just the money a collector would pay for it.