Postcards From the Edge

For collector Paul Walter, great pleasures can also come in small and surprisingly affordable packages.

What do you give the man who has everything? That was the dilemma faced by relatives and friends celebrating Paul F. Walter's 70th birthday at the Museum of Modern Art in New York last summer. Walter, the famously eclectic collector, longtime MoMA trustee, and retired head of Thermo-Electric (his family's electrical equipment company), is renowned in art circles for his prescient eye, zooming in on the next big thing well before dealers and curators. He is also known as something of an art and antiques shopaholic, and during the eighties he employed a personal curator to log his torrent of almost daily purchases.

Over the past four decades, Walter has amassed several first-rate and wildly diverse collections. The strength and range of his taste have been confirmed by the marketplace whenever he's auctioned off parts of his holdings—something he tends to do when rising prices push him on to more affordable obsessions. His prime examples of early photography fetched record prices at Sotheby's London in 2001 and his Indian miniature paintings did the same in New York a year later.

Walter is such a generous and inventive gift-giver that his guests' quandary was all the more daunting. Little did most of them suspect that he would have been delighted with nothing more than a postcard. Not just any postcard, of course, but one of the rare yet still surprisingly inexpensive examples that have become Walter's latest acquisitive passion, centering on the golden age of the medium, from about 1898 to 1918. It was during this period that several unrelated factors—including the invention of high-speed lithography, the beginning of free rural delivery by the U. S. Post Office, and the rise of mass tourism—led to a worldwide postcard craze, peaking in 1913, when an estimated 968 million cards were mailed in the United States alone.

Walter is one of the present-day coterie of prominent collectors bitten by the bug. The most notable among this group is Leonard Lauder, chairman of Estée Lauder, who in 2002 gave his stupendous cache of some 20,000 Japanese postcards to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. But Lauder and Walter came to the field from opposite directions. The boldly graphic postcards that attracted Lauder grew out of Japan's rich print-making tradition, epitomized by the ukiyo-e woodblock images that were created for a mass audience but have been valued as fine art since the Impressionists' time.

Walter's approach, by contrast, derives more from his experience as a pathbreaking photography collector. He shares the philosophy of his late friend and fellow collector Sam Wagstaff, who never discriminated against a great image just because it was reproduced in a grainy magazine format rather than as a pristine platinum print. With run-of-the-mill postcards going for $2 to $5 and prices rarely topping $100 except for those by brand-name artists, the sums invested by Walter are fairly modest. But that's not the point. His ability to appreciate an object on its own aesthetic terms makes him a connoisseur of another and very adventurous sort.

"Sometimes things just fall into my lap unexpectedly," says Walter, who was inspired to start collecting postcards about ten years ago, when a dinner guest showed up with one that had a picture of Walter's home in Southampton, New York, on it. "I was so astonished because the image was from 1905 and the house no longer looked much like it did back then," he recalls, "yet somehow my friend was able to connect the two. Then I thought about how interesting it would be to collect postcards of the town where you live and create a little nostalgic history of the area you know."

From there Walter branched out into other subjects—again, accidentally. "I once drove for hours to one of those big postcard conventions and couldn't find but three Southampton postcards in the whole place," he says. "I thought, Oh my God, I've come all this way, I've got to find other things to make the trip worthwhile." An enthusiast of all things Indian, with holdings ranging from ancient Kushan sculpture to princely photo albums of the Raj, Walter gravitated toward postcards of the subcontinent and began seeking them out with his customary gusto.

"It became a continuum of my photography collection," he explains. "By 1900 people who traveled to India would buy postcards rather than photographs to put in albums. In some cases postcards are the only record of how certain places looked in the early twentieth century. They are now appearing in books as historical documents and are being considered in a way they weren't ten years ago." Indeed, in 2003 several of Walter's postcards were featured in "Traces of India," an exhibition at Montreal's Canadian Center for Architecture and the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Connecticut.

In addition to India and the Hamptons, Walter's collection includes concentrations of postcards from imperial Russia and Islamic Spain, as well as a group from Africa featuring stunning portraits taken by a European photographer (whose name I won't divulge so the prices don't soar, as inevitably seems to happen with everything Walter discovers). For a man who cannot say no to a beautiful, well-priced object, there is, of course, a practical benefit to this medium: The works don't take up much room. "A time comes when you can't keep certain collections at home anymore," Walter says, thinking of his not inconsiderable warehouse expenses.

As much as he loves the thrill of the hunt, Walter moves fast. Friends who "work" a big antiques show with him are astonished at how quickly he homes in on one great piece among all the ordinary things. He doesn't like to pay what he considers exorbitant sums. For Walter and many other sophisticated collectors, the passion for postcards closely replicates the excitement we all experienced when we first started to collect things as kids. And if prices get too high, then a large part of the fun vanishes.

Sitting in his gorgeously cluttered New York library, surrounded by the 3-by-5 inch objects of his most recent affection, Walter confesses, "I never thought I could get the same charge from buying a three-dollar postcard that I do from a ten-thousand-dollar print, but I do."

The Collector's Eye

Asked to choose a favorite recent postcard acquisition, Paul Walter reaches for a silver picture frame in his overflowing Manhattan library, opens it, and removes a gray-tone image of what at first glance appears to be one of the haunting lava-encrusted human forms unearthed at Pompeii. A closer look reveals a disconcerting scene—an Indian fakir, or Muslim mendicant, lies naked on the ground in an extreme act of penance, his head buried in the sand and a huge stone weighing on his midsection. Walter, a seasoned expert on India, is shocked less by the masochistic rite than by how the postcard was first used. "This is one of the most bizarre cards I own, sent from Lucknow in 1908," he says. "The message reads 'A Merry Christmas to you all at Clifton House. Billy.' The idea that the sender thought it was an appropriate Christmas greeting is even stranger to me than the picture itself. I love the writing on postcards, which is often very intricate. On the old ones it usually loops around the pictures, because back then you weren't allowed to write anything on the reverse except the address. For me the writing becomes part of the image—it adds to the beauty and mystery."

Card Sharp

In the world of postcard collecting, subjects such as railroad stations and golf typically command higher prices than run-of-the-mill views of tourist destinations. Condition is less important than in some fields, with rarity usually trumping perfection. EBAY is a boon for collectors, with its global reach, and the use of images on the site helps buyers avoid duplicates. Online auctions, however, bring out a competitiveness that can push routine bids up to hundreds (or even thousands) of dollars—territory generally reserved for postcards made in the early 20th century by artists such as Alphonse Mucha, Theodore Steinlen, and members of the Wiener Werkstätte. Prices tend to be lower at shows. Three of the best are the New York METROPOLITAN INTERNATIONAL POSTCARD SHOW and the GREATER CHICAGO POSTCARD SHOW, which have spring and fall dates, and the YORK INTERNATIONAL POSTCARD EXPO in York, Pennsylvania, held in the fall.