Three Keys to Judging the Value of Antique and Vintage Postcards

A 1940s view of Main Street in Evansville, Ind., showing store signage. This postcard would be worth $5-$6.

A 1940s view of Main Street in Evansville, Ind., showing store signage. This postcard would be worth $5-$6.

Just last week I received a phone call from my friend Janet, who told me that her Great-Aunt Molly just gave her “a bunch of old postcards” that she had collected over the years. “Are they valuable?” Janet wanted to know.

Of course, without looking at a collection, it’s impossible to assess its value. But there are a few simple ways to tell which cards in that stack of postcards are likely to have more value than others. Examine them for three major factors:

Subject: What’s on the picture side of the postcard? The more likely the scene is to have changed, the more valuable the card. A view of Main Street in Peoria, Ill. will have more value than a beautiful view of the Rocky Mountains—even if the scenic card is from 1906 and the street scene is from the 1960s. General scenes can often be found in dealers’ 25¢ to $1boxes at postcard shows, while busy streets often range from $4 to $25 or more, depending on the town, age, condition and amount of detail.

Unusual views: This pre-1908 postcard shows bookkeepers in Hong Kong, wearing traditional dress and using the abacus. In excellent condition, this postcard would be worth $15-$20.

Unusual views: This pre-1908 postcard shows bookkeepers in Hong Kong, wearing traditional dress and using the abacus. In excellent condition, this postcard would be worth $15-$20.

This lovely pre-1920 scenic view of a Norwegian fjord is worth just 50 cents to $2, as, most likely, this fjord looks the same today.

This lovely pre-1920 scenic view of a Norwegian fjord is worth just 50 cents to $2, as, most likely, this fjord looks the same today.

The more unusual the view, the more value it has. There are millions of postcards out there—old and new—showing the tourist sights of Washington DC, but not so many of people working inside factories. Small town views are more likely to be worth more than similar scenes in big cities. Old or new, card showing monuments, statues and historic buildings can be found for $1 and less. Rarer images will begin at the $5-$10 level.

View or greeting? Views show people, places and things as they really are (or were). Greetings include holiday cards, artist signed cards (signature printed on the card—different from an autograph) and fantasy (i.e. dressed animals doing people-things, flowers with faces). Today, in general, views are “hotter” than greetings—just the opposite from the time I started collecting in the early 1970s. Common greetings are often found for less than $1, while particular signed artists and extra features can boost the starting price to $5-plus.

Greeting postcards: Pre-1920 embossed Christmas postcard with shiny copper insets could be found for $1-$4.

Greeting postcards: Pre-1920 embossed Christmas postcard with shiny copper insets could be found for $1-$4.

Age: In general, the older the postcard, the more valuable it is. Longtime postcard collectors eagerly seek cards from the Golden Age of Postcards (1907-1915) and earlier. New cards, available today on the racks, have little value. I often see them at postcard shows for less than their WalMart rack prices.

Condition: Does the postcard look like you could have just plucked it from the rack to send to your grandma? Or does it have bent corners, postmarking on the front, stains, tears or creases? Even slight damage can reduce the value of a postcard by half or more.

A pre-1915 look at the Seaside Inn in Daytona Beach, FL, showing a horse-drawn carriage.  Daytona Beach doesn’t look anything like this today, and this card is worth $6-$8.

A pre-1915 look at the Seaside Inn in Daytona Beach, FL, showing a horse-drawn carriage. Daytona Beach doesn’t look anything like this today, and this card is worth $6-$8.

Generally, it doesn’t matter whether or not the postcard was sent through the mail. However, unusual postmarks, such as RPO (Railroad Post Offices), very clear small-town postmarks or those commemorating special events can add value.

Unlike collectibles such as coins and stamps, there are no “official records” of all the postcards ever produced, nor is there a clear standard of value. It’s common to see the exact same postcard priced at $5 at one dealer’s booth and $15 at another—within the same show! This heightens the “thrill of the hunt” for postcards even more.

If your Great-Aunt Molly’s postcards have personal significance, you’ll want to keep them to hand down to the kids. Tales of Grandpa Joe’s trip through Europe, or reminiscences of Great-Granny’s move to Chicago may have their greatest value as part of your family’s history.

Bonnie Wilpon is a Worthologist who specializes in postcards.

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