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What is Ephemera? Plus How to Buy and Sell Ephemera at Auction

Debbie Porter

Have you ever wondered what to do with old postcards, letters, or even old magazines? Often these are tossed into the recycling bin or dropped off at a charity shop. But wait, you could be holding collectable ephemera. Ephemera is the name for collectable paper items. These items may be varied and surprising. But that’s the nature of ephemera!

What is Ephemera?

Ephemera is a broad name for a collection of items – usually paper – that were created for a specific purpose and were not expected to have been saved or preserved. This can include a huge list of items:

  • Postcards
  • Historical ledgers
  • Maps
  • Letters 
  • Entertainment paraphernalia
  • Advertising booklets
  • Brochures
  • Comics
  • Music pamphlets
  • Paper related items (train tickets, lottery tickets)
  • Pop posters
  • Railway posters
  • War time memorabilia

This list of items that can be classed as ephemera is almost endless! It’s what makes it so interesting and intriguing. The value of a piece can also be quite subjective, as some items may hold person significance and meaning.

An example is the incredible story of the romance box lot. This lot told the love story between a young Lance Corporal in the Royal Engineers, Eric Raymond Stretch from Birmingham, and an Austrian lady called Ernestina, during WWII. The collection contained military ephemera, paperwork, documents, love letters and photographs, plus a stamped passbook, ID card and other items of interest. This unique lot sold for an incredible £380!

Is Ephemera Popular at Auction?

What makes ephemera exciting is how random and different each item can be – it makes for interesting auctions. Here at Potteries Auctions we’ve had some fantastic results from ephemera auctions.

This includes this unusual C.B. Wallpapers sample book. A scarce and unusual piece from 1939, it’s a large wallpaper sample book, measuring 46cm x 27cm x 13cm high. It was in a good used condition and sold for a stunning £250.

We had a surprise interest in another ephemera piece, selling for over 10 times the estimated price! A large quantity of Victorian and slightly later scraps of paper ephemera of varying sizes and subject material (including animals, together with figures, scenes, birds, mounted riders etc) sold for a massive £420. This lot shows just how popular ephemera can be.

Postcards are also a popular and collectable item that sell well at auction, such as this varied collection of old black and white vintage train postcards featuring 19th and 20th century steam trains and locomotives. Most of these postcards have handwritten information to the reverse, including the make and model and information, etc. The lot contained approximately 2,500-3,000 postcards! An incredible collector’s item, this lot sold for £380!

How to Buy Ephemera at Auction

If you’d like to buy ephemera at auction, you’ve come to the right place. We specialise in books and ephemera sales and pride ourselves on the excellent lots we sell. We get many house clearance auction requests, and often these reveal exciting collections of stamps, postcards or even adverts and magazines.

How to Sell Ephemera at Auction

If you have ephemera items for auction, get in touch and we can help you with a valuation. You don’t want to end up selling items on eBay or dropping them off at a charity shop when you could have had a hassle-free sale with Potteries Auctions.  

Talk to our team of experts who will be able to give you an accurate auction estimate on your collection of ephemera and recommend the best auction for your pieces. Join us at one of our valuation days every Tuesday. Email us for an appointment enquiries@potteriesauctions.comor call us on +44 (0)1782 638100 Monday to Friday, 9am to 4pm. 

If you can’t come in and see us in person but would like to submit items valuation, send us an email with details and a photograph (eg make, model, model number, measurements, condition) and one of our experts will provide information and auction estimates. Alternatively, give us a call to arrange an appointment.