Liner postcard prices have spiked thanks to Titanic fever

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Titanic discovery boosted interest in liner postcards
By Mike Smith
One of the great things about collecting picture postcards is the endless variety of material available.
In the heyday of the postcard, from 1900 to 1914 (i.e., the picture postcard’s “Golden Age”), oodles of publishers produced millions of postcards for public consumption.
If a subject could be photographed, painted, drawn, woven in silk, embroidered, burned into wood or etched into metal, chances are it was reproduced as a postcard.
With so many different antique postcards out there, specialization is almost always the norm with collectors. In other words, if a collector doesn't focus on a particular subject or subjects, he or she could be literally overwhelmed.
A similar situation occurs with stamp collecting. Many young philatelists start collecting stamps from around the world but soon realize it would be next to impossible to complete such a collection. Therefore, the obvious path is to specialize in one’s own country or region.
In the realm of postcard collecting, some of the more popular collecting areas are: main streets and businesses (especially real photo cards); artist-signed cards (including advertising); military and patriotic cards (including royalty); and transportation cards (railway stations and trains, early autos and planes, ships and liners).
Ocean liner collecting, in particular, has grown by leaps and bounds in the past 15 years or so. And I think I know the reason for this - a phenomenal discovery followed by a blockbuster movie.
Legendary, colossal, unsinkable . . . there were and still are many superlatives used to describe the ill-fated Titanic. As for its postcards, the only thing I can think of is “yikes.”
Figure 1: A beautiful R.M.S. Titanic postcard by Raphael Tuck & Sons of London, England. Although there were differences in upper deck design, Tuck cheated and
used the same picture to portray Titanic’s sister ship, the RMS Olympic.
It was bad enough when Robert Ballard discovered the wreck of the great ship off Newfoundland in 1985, but demand for its postcards went ballistic after the 1997 James Cameron movie. Cards in the $25-$50 range soon started selling for more than 10 times that amount.
Thankfully, the market has cooled down somewhat, but one can still expect to pay big bucks for cards showing the Titanic being outfitted and at Cherbourg, France, one of her last ports-of-call. And if you ever come across a Titanic postcard mailed from one of the passengers or crew? Oy.
For those like me with a more modest collecting budget, cards of the RMS Olympic, Titanic’s sister ship, are much more affordable.
When I saw card of the RMS Virginian at a postcard show many years ago, I was thrilled to discover that ocean liner postcards had cross-pollinated with patriotic postcards.
The gloriously-coloured RMS Virginian card has a large Union Jack at right and Canada’s distinct Blue Ensign at left. (Our Blue Ensign was at one time flown as much as the Red Ensign, but that’s fodder for another article.)
Published by Valentine & Sons of Dundee, Scotland, around 1911, this gem is certainly a treat for the eyes. When compiling my first postcard book, The Canadian Patriotic Postcard Checklist 1898-1928, I learned that Valentine & Sons made a whole series of these cards under the their own name and made an identical series for C. W. Hunt & Co. of Liverpool, England.
The cards I have seen are the RMS Virginian, Victorian, Megantic, Corsican, and Empress of Ireland. Since publishers back then usually produced even-numbered sets of cards, this list is probably incomplete and I would love to hear from a WT reader with a more extensive collection.
What are these postcards worth? My card, which is in very good condition, cost me about $20 in the 1980s. Today, because very few turn up at dealers’ tables and on eBay, I would say it's worth at least $30.
The most famous liner ever flying a Canadian flag is without a doubt the Empress of Ireland. Needless to say, it's very popular among Canadian postcard collectors. When I started collecting ocean liner postcards as a sideline about 20 years ago, it took me years to find a nice one.
I haven't figured out the publisher’s logo on the back yet, but the card was posted aboard and received at Liverpool, England, on Oct. 20, 1911. Interestingly, the last line written in a message signed by “S.G.” is: “The Duke and Duchess and Princess are on board and I have been quite close to them and they came to see us.”
Tragically, less than three years after the Empress postcard was mailed, this great Canadian liner sank in the St. Lawrence River after being struck amidships by the S.S. Storstad, a Norwegian freighter. Over 1,000 lives were lost when she foundered, making the sinking of the Empress the worst maritime disaster in Canadian history.
For the record, more passengers (840) perished in the Empress of Ireland disaster than those in the Titanic. The Titanic’s overall (passengers and crew) death toll was higher though. By the way, nice Empress of Ireland postcards sell for at least $25 and up.
Figure 2: The Empress of Ireland, Canada’s most famous liner, was owned
and operated by the Canadian Pacific Railway, C.P.R. Her sinking in
1914 still ranks as Canada’s worst maritime disaster.
One of the most modern postcards in my collection is that of another great liner - the M.V. Britannic. It was a Cunard liner launched at Belfast, Northern Ireland, in August 1929. The more interesting story though is that of her predecessor, the RMS Britannic.
The RMS Britannic was the third of three Olympic Class vessels built in Belfast by Harland & Wolff - the first two were the Olympic and Titanic. Launched in February 1914 and originally named RMS Gigantic (what a moniker), the RMS Britannic was requisitioned by the British Admiralty during the First World War and subsequently used as a hospital ship.
Tragically, she struck a German mine in the Mediterranean in November 1916 and sank. Fortunately however, Harland & Wolff had learned from the Titanic sinking and had installed an ample amount of lifeboats. Only 21 of the 1,134 people aboard RMS Britannic lost their lives when she foundered.
Cunard’s M.V. Britannic had a much longer career, completing 275 voyages before being scrapped in Liverpool in December 1960. I know that one of the M.V. Britannic’s ports of call was Haifa, Israel, because my card was postmarked there on 21 February 1956. Since it's not a “Golden Age” ship, most M.V. Britannic postcards should sell for between $5 and $10. An interesting postmark like the one on my example (gloat, gloat) should double the value.
Finally, there's a very popular sideline to ocean liner collecting in North America - collecting postcards of Great Lakes’ steamers. Steamers were king before the railways opened up Ontario’s vast interior and the S.S. Medora, was no exception.
Figure 3: The S.S. Medora is shown on this mint
condition Warwick Bros. & Rutter postcard.
The Medora was one of the many vessels operated by the Muskoka Lakes Navigation Company, also known as NAVCO, in and around the waters of Lake Muskoka, Lake Joseph and Lake Rosseau.
Founded by Alexander Cockburn in 1866, the first ship launched by NAVCO was the S.S. Wenonah, named after Cockburn’s wife. When Cockburn died in 1905, NAVCO was one of the largest companies of its kind in North America.
Michael J. (Mike) Smith is an RMC graduate (Class of '77) and ex-naval officer who has been an avid collector of Canadiana for most of his life. His current passion is collecting and writing about Canadian antique postcards. He is currently working on his eighth postcard handbook. Visit
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