GRADING AND VALUING YOUR ANTIQUE POSTCARDS
Age, Demand, Subject, Location, and Condition Issues
by Joelle Steele
If you plan to sell or insure your postcard collection, it helps to understand how a dollar value is placed on such collectibles.
AGE AND DEMAND
The age and demand for a particular postcard will impact on its dollar value. Sometimes age isn't as important as demand. If there were a lot of your particular 1903 postcard printed and many are still floating around, it probably isn't worth as much as a 1903 postcard that was printed only in a very small quantity by a self-publishing artist or photographer in a small town. And demand and therefore value for a postcard can go up if it is the only one known to exist from an artist-signed print run or that has an unusual printing error on it.
SUBJECT AND LOCATION
Some subjects — topicals — are more popular than others. If you have a great collection of cat postcards, holidays themes, flowers, pretty women, birthday greetings, cartoon characters, wartime propaganda, or some other subject, your collection as a whole may be of far greater value than the sum of the individual cards. And, if you have collected a very specific subset of those topicals — a much smaller collection — such as cartoon cats or Easter postcards, then your cards may be even more valuable.
Where you are located makes a difference with some cards. For example, old scenic vistas of San Francisco are generally worth more to collectors who live in that city and will likely have little to no value to collectors who live at the Jersey Shore. This could certainly work in a collector's favor if, for example, a San Francisco collector visiting New Jersey picks up a $5 San Francisco gem of a postcard for only 50¢ from a bin at a garage sale or antique mall.
Above and beyond everything else is the one thing that has the greatest influence on postcard values: condition. Antique dealers consider postcards to be "ephemera," those printed things on paper that were never meant to last longer than a few weeks at best. Some postcards managed to stand the test of time, but like people, some aged better than others. Hopefully, when you acquired your postcards you avoided those that had creases, folds, tears, scuffs, scratches, dog-ears, writing on the face, etc. A postcard with such types of damage is worth far less than one that has been carefully stored in an album for 80-plus years. Of course, there are instances where a damaged card is all that is available, and so you may have some in your collection, perhaps holding a place until a better card is found.
There have been quite a few condition guides published over the years, and they all contain pretty much the same standardized language as follows, which is what I use in grading my own cards on this site:
Mint. Pristine condition. Perfect on both sides, with no marks, no defects or damage of any kind, no writing, no postmark, unused.
Near Mint or Excellent. Like mint but with extremely light aging, slight discoloration from being stored in an album. May be used or unused, the front (picture side) is free of writing, except for undivided era cards.
Fine or Very Good. Minor defects such as slightly blunt or rounded corners, album marks, minor creases or bends, writing or postmarking on back side, or front (picture side) if an undivided era card.
Good. Noticeably blunt or rounded corners, noticeable creases and album marks, writing and heavy postmarking on back (address side).
Average. Even more pronounced creases, folds, rounded corners, writing on the front (picture side), postmarking that wraps onto the front of the card, stains, and/or tears.
Poor or Space Filler. Excessive soil, stains, postmarking, writing, missing corners, and damage on either or both sides, particularly that which detracts from the picture.
So there you have it. Age, demand, subject matter, location, and the most important issue, condition. It can be a timely process to assess the value of a collection, but careful record-keeping as you acquire your postcards will help you — and a dealer, if necessary — attach a dollar value to your postcards.
This article last updated: 02/17/2012.