Vintage postcards are auction items


Wish you were here.

It's the time of year when colorful postcards fill American mailboxes, as vacation travelers send best wishes to the folks back home.

Most postcards sent out over the years were eventually tossed out, but others were squirreled away in albums and desk drawers. More than a million Americans now collect vintage postcards. Some of the best examples are already valuable and slowly rising in price.

More than $225,000 worth of postcards were auctioned off recently by San Francisco's Butterfield & Butterfield auction house. A 1898 art nouveau postcard of the Moulin Rouge Ball by Henri Toulouse-Lautrec sold for $1,700.

A postcard by French artist Alphonse Mucha once sold for a record $20,000.

Among affordable examples, linen-finish postcards with printed illustrations from the 1930s and 1940s, which sold for $2 a decade ago, now are going for $8 to $10. Postcards from the 1920s that feature major-league ballparks sold for $3 a decade ago and now command $15 to $20. Psychedelic postcards used to advertise concerts in San Francisco in the late 1960s and early 1970s sell for $5 to several hundred dollars, depending on the event and performers.

"Collectible postcards have been rising 15 to 20 percent in value annually despite the recession, selling in a wide price range that goes from 25 cents to $20,000," said Michael Rasmussen, an appraiser for Butterfield & Butterfield.

There's a postcard show somewhere nearly every week in the United States and several thousand active collector clubs. It's nearly a century-old hobby, since the first pictorial U.S. postcards were souvenir items for the 1893 Columbian Exposition.

"The rarity, age and desirability of the image, as well as whether ++ it's an original rather than reproduction, all play a role in making a postcard collectible," explained Diane Allmen of Elkhart, Ind., author of the book "Postcards" (House of Collectibles, New York: 1990). "Value is based on supply and demand, and the many subjects depicted can either turn out to be fads or gain in popularity."

Prices are a mixed bag. While some cards from the late 1980s and 1990s go for 35 cents to $1, others from the 1800s aren't worth much more than that. Some postcards are actual photographs. Some carry an artist's or photographer's signature. Some collectors like cards with written messages, while others prefer that they be pristine.

Among modern postcards, Mr. Rasmussen says those that depict the times are the most likely to increase in value. Some examples are postcards depicting Watergate, President Reagan's jelly beans, environmental concerns and popular film stars.

Twenty years ago, you'd find plenty of postcards at flea markets, but collecting has changed.

"Collecting is much more organized now, and you should be able to find a postcard show in your area by checking either the local newspaper or antique magazines," said George Miller, a professor at the University of Delaware who has more than 10,000 postcards in his collection.

Mr. Miller owns a rare postcard that promotes Du Pont gunpowder with the message, "Are there idle shotguns in your town?" Purchased for $7 at a flea market 18 years ago, it's now valued at $250.

"Postcard collecting goes in cycles, and nostalgia for roadside Americana, social history such as Operation Desert Storm and baseball themes are big collectibles right now," noted Sheldon Dobres, a Baltimore postcard dealer.

"Art nouveau was incredibly popular a couple of years ago, but is now a somewhat softer market."

Membership in the Postcard Collector Society is $35, which includes 12 issues of Postcard Collector magazine, an annual edition and free admission to its annual convention. Contact Postcard Collector at P.O. Box 337, Iola, Wis. 54945.

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