Curiously enough, passports can be a valuable collectible. A somewhat ordinary 1923 United States passport sold for $40.99 in June 2017.
Marrakesh, Paris, Copenhagen, New Delhi and Orlando, Florida. What does travel to these international cities have in common? Doesn’t matter who you are, commoner or king, if you live beyond the country’s border where these cities are, you need a passport or visa to visit them.
According to The Henley & Partners Passport Index ranking, as of January 2018, Germany has the most “valuable” passport. That means the passport allows its holder to travel to 177 of the 193 recognized nations in the world without a visa. The United States tied for 4th place with visa-free travel to 174 countries. Afghanistan is last, with 24 countries its citizens can travel to without a visa.
All very interesting, I’m sure. So why am I bringing this up? Because, curiously enough, the passports themselves may be valuable as a collectible of their own.
According to a Wikipedia entry on passports, King Henry V of England is credited with the first identifying document, a passport of sorts, for his citizens to travel outside of the UK around the year 1414. Prior to that, an internal document was needed in European countries for a person to travel from town to town without being unduly harassed during the medieval period. The Islamic Caliphates of the 7th to the 13th centuries required individuals to show a document that said you paid your taxes before you could travel beyond your home boundaries. All are types of early passports.
As travel increased through the ages with the introduction of passenger ships and train travel, a passport started to include multiple pages around the year 1860. Photographs and more identifying characteristics, such as height and weight, were added around 1920 by the League of Nations because of the increased refugee travel after World War I. Machine-readable technology updated passports for quick scanning around 1980 with biometrics; the use of implanted RFID computer chips becoming standard more recently. All passport controls are codified by the International Civil Aviation Organization, an agency of the United Nations overseeing international travel since 1947.
So, you can see there are a lot of possibilities for collecting passports of different eras. But there are also different types of passports such as citizen passports, diplomatic passports, emergency passports, family or group passports, official government/diplomatic passports, non-citizen passports, even refugee passports. There are internal passports for travel within a country that are equivalent to a national ID, and even a special passport issued to those on the pilgrimage to Mecca. But a passport for your pet? Indeed there is.
All of this is to say that the collecting of passports is a multi-level category not many may have thought about. You can learn geography, history, art, culture, language and local customs through passports. And that doesn’t include the visa stamps either, another collecting category altogether.
If you are well known, your cancelled passport shows your career through visa stamps, such as the one for the actor John Wayne, whose cancelled passport sold for $16,730 in 2011 featuring two full signatures; the passport for Muhammad Ali before the famous “Rumble in the Jungle” in 1974 that sold for $18,830, again with two full signatures; Farrah Fawcett-Majors’ passport, the 1970s actress of Charlie’s Angels fame, that sold for $17,500; or, singer Whitney Houston’s passport that sold for $15,000 in 2017. Just a passport photo of a young John F. Kennedy, circa 1950s, sold for $2000 at auction in 2015. Because there are relatively few passports featuring their likenesses and signatures, that may account for the rarity and the high auction value.
And yet, somewhat ordinary passports also sold at auction, such as this 1923 US passport for almost $41 featuring fold out documentation and visas from the German Weimar Republic, a passport from British India of 1919 for $100, and a very early paper US passport from the Legation of Great Britain in 1858 that sold for $56. Earlier individual passports before the 1850s weren’t listed or sold at auction to provide values for comparison.
In between are specialized passports like those issued to diplomats such as Elihu Root, former Secretary of State and a Nobel Prize winner in 1912, that sold for $65. As I said before, whether commoner or king, a passport is required, such as this one for Bulgarian royalty in 1927 that sold for about $50. Lots of history here.
Within any collecting category, there are always the fraudsters to be aware of. For passports, it is the “fantasy” or “camouflage” ones that may trip up new collectors, and at times even advanced collectors as well. One example noted on passport-collector, the only site available for collectors, is the fantasy passport collection for the Knights of Malta. These passports sound similar to the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, the official name of the religious order declared sovereign in 1113. So similar, that many refugees have been duped into buying these types of fantasy passports at great cost as a way to escape war, famine, and persecution, but these have no legal status at all. As if fleeing one’s own country against your will wasn’t hardship enough.
Passports may be collected as long as they have been officially cancelled by the authorizing government. Some countries require that expired passports be returned, but most don’t. Owning a passport that is not yours, other than collectible ones that have been cancelled, will lead you to be a guest of the government entity that issued it for quite some time.
On the whole, though, passports are a form of time travel. Without packing or leaving home, just imagine the places these official documents have been and the stories they have to tell, if only they could. Bon voyage!
Tom Carrier is a General Worthologist with a specialty in Americana, political memorabilia and he has been the resident WorthPoint vexillologist (flags, seals and heraldry) since 2007. Tom is also a frequent contributor of articles to WorthPoint.
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