Many postcards sold for a few cents (or even a penny) when they were first made, but they’re a lot more valuable now. The value of old postcards depends several factors, including their condition, rarity, age, and subject. Figuring out whether an old postcard is worth money comes down to looking pretty hard at these characteristics and comparing your postcard against ones that have sold recently.
Four Famous Valuable Vintage Postcards
While many old postcards are worth only a few dollars, there are four that stand out for being worth a lot. These are some of the most valuable postcards ever sold.
|Penny Black Stamp Postcard||about $50,000|
|1915 Boston Red Sox Postcard||about $43,000|
|"Tower Behind the Trees" Postcard||about $30,000|
|African American Mother and Son With Flag Postcard||as much as $20,000|
Penny Black Stamp Postcard
The oldest known picture postcard was 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. It also featured the first stick-on postage stamp, called the penny black stamp, which added to its value.
1915 Boston Red Sox With Rookie Babe Ruth Postcard
Baseball postcards can be super valuable, especially if they show important teams and players. A rare photo postcard showing the Red Sox with Babe Ruth in his rookie year (before his rookie baseball card even came out) sold at auction in 2016 for $43,000.
The "Tower Behind the Trees" Postcard
A hand-drawn postcard dating to 1911 by artist Karl Schmidt-Rottluff is one of the most valuable examples. It sold for €28,000 or just under $30,000. This one-of-a-kind treasure was valuable because of its rarity and provenance.
African American Mother and Son With Flag Postcard
Although it's difficult to find auction results that substantiate the claim, many antiques dealers consider a photo postcard of an African American mother and her young son in front of an American flag to be one of the most valuable postcards ever sold. Supposedly sold at auction for almost $20,000, this powerful image is valuable even as a reprint, with quality reproductions selling for $15. If you find an original, you could be in the money.
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 that anyone could read!
Factors Affecting Old Postcards' Value
Just like other types of vintage and antique collectibles, postcard values are based on a specific set of criteria. Some of the most valuable examples sell for thousands of dollars, so it's super important to understand the factors that affect the value of antique and vintage postcards.
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 that looks perfect could be a reproduction, so be careful when buying. Damaged cards bring less money, and major damage can make the card nearly worthless.
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 (anyone who gets their fair share of junk mail knows this 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 old post cards can be quite valuable with individual cards often bringing at least $20 in good condition. Sometimes, they can be worth a lot more.
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.
Keep in mind, rarity goes hand in hand with other characteristics when it comes to value. 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 very much. In this case, it may be the only one, but no one wants it.
Subject matter of the card is another important 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. For example, an old postcard of the Titanic sold on eBay for about $1,300.
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.
Valuable Autographs and Stamps
The postcard itself might not be that rare or valuable, but it could be worth a lot because of what's on it. If it has a super valuable stamp on the back, that could make an old postcard worth money. Same goes for an autograph. For example, a postcard from the Hotel Sahara in Las Vegas might not be worth a ton on its own, but if it's signed by Elvis Presley, it could go for $6,500.
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, and German postcards were mailed all over the world. Unusual cards from unusual places can bring more money, sometimes into the thousands of dollars.
- Whether it is a photo card or printed: Photo cards of very rare topics can bring over a thousand dollars apiece. Crime scenes, train crashes, baseball, and 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, any 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 Americana Postcard Price Guide by J. L. Mashburn
- Rare and Expensive Postcards: a Price Guide by John M. Kaduck
Some websites have unusual postcard books for sale, including PostalHistory.com, where you can find dozens of guides to help you identify your postcards.
3. Assess Market Demand
After you've identified your card, go on an auction site 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 the 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 by an antique specialist. 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 $1,000, you'll find that its value encompasses more than just the money a collector would pay for it. It's all about what you love and the places and people represented on these iconic cards.