Q: My grandfather was in World War I and brought back postcards from places he visited, such as Versailles, tourist attractions and bombed-out houses. I have cardboard boxes of the cards, all in black and white. Do they have any value, and if so, how can I sell them?
Q: My mother left a pile of black-and-white postcards from World War I, including bombed houses, ammo and soldiers. Some were mailed, some not. Many have messages from the sender. Info and value?
A: Let me tell these writers that www.worthpoint.com, a database heavy on completed sales on eBay, lists more than 1,000 sale results on similar World War I-era postcards. Many are war-related. That tells you that yes, there is a market. We’ll get to dollar results, but first some background.
Anyone who watches “Downton Abbey” knows the Great War was the first time large numbers of young men traveled any distance from home. Combine that with social upheavals happening at home, such as the changeover from an agrarian to industrial economy, and you realize that it was a period of significant change.
Add to that the overlapping trend of the golden age of postcards (1898-1918). Centered mostly on travel and thematic collecting, that’s a story unto itself.
Back to the black-and-white cards: A major part of the pleasure of travel was showing folks at home scenes from where you’d been. An industry developed involving commercial photography, the production and selling of cards, and, for travelers, mounting those cards in albums once home.
Today travel is no big deal; folks back home can see where you’ve been via videos on Facebook and any number of platforms. Then, noses got seriously out of joint if no cards came in the mail. Postcards were anticipated and expected.
Today’s buyer selects cards primarily for what they show. A written message, if there is one, can enhance the image, but most messages are not a reason to buy. Writing from a significant person or an eyewitness to an important event providing comments are exceptions.
As example, a World War I black-and-white showing men of a regiment relaxing with a dog sold on eBay for $20. One showing a regiment lined up for a formal pose brought $6. The informal shot has appeal and shows actual life.
A postcard showing a mixed-race regiment with the one person of color identified by name brought $23.39 this year because it is socially significant. A rare shot of a German submarine brought $28.83.
One of a French windmill made into a field hospital sold at $6.69, another of bombed buildings in the Somme brought $5.34. A lot of six (some sellers bundle the cards) battlefield scenes showing casualties fetched $23.49.
Tourist/scenic black-and-white cards of the era are collected less but still sell. We found a lot of 25 tourist shots of Venice pre-1915 sold for $12.35 in 2008.
This is a good time to point out that postcards and photos of life in the U.S. in earlier times have become increasingly popular. As example, petroliana or automobile collectors hunt for scenes of old gas stations.
About selling: It boils down to a matter of stamina. After being a smart collector and separating the cards by significance, are you willing to post better sellers individually, perhaps bundling the lesser? Donation to a local museum or historical society is another option.