Many travellers like filling their passports with visas from around the world, leaving no page unstamped. Ross Nochimson, however, likes doing things a little differently. The history buff prefers collecting vintage passports instead — a hobby that started in 1998! Today, his huge collection running into hundreds finds a spot on his Instagram page where he brings alive the histories and cultures of the (usually) iconic passport holders. In a conversation with Travel+Leisure India & South Asia, Nochimson tells more about this unique love for vintage passports, how he found an Indian doctor’s British-era passport, and more.
Excerpts from the interview with Ross Nochimson:
T+L India: Could you tell us more about yourself and how you started taking an interest in collecting vintage passports?
Ross Nochimson: Professionally, I’m a physician. I’m a bit of a history buff, too. I started with collecting sports cards and paper money or coins as a child. Passports caught my eye in 1998, and so I started collecting documents in 1998 from eBay. At the time, it was a little bit different since there was no PayPal. There was also a lack of sophistication when purchasing items online. When buying items online, especially overseas, you had to send an international money order and hope the person wasn’t going to cheat you!
T+L India: How do you find these passports and what’s the research involved in learning their stories?
Ross Nochimson: Finding these passports is somewhat of a guarded secret amongst the more experienced collectors because they do not want to share their small auction houses in Europe and other places that obtain these items. But for the most part, a beginner can start at the larger auction houses such as eBay and Delcampe.
With respect to research, my colleague from Israel is the best! It takes quite a bit of time and effort as these documents—for the most part—are 50 to 200 years old. And contacting archives can be a dicey business as [authorities] want a fees. You can develop a relationship with an archivist who can pull records for you, but it is a tedious and long process, especially if you can’t find things directly. For example, I collect a lot of holocausts-related escape documents of Jews leaving Nazi Germany. Yad Vashem (Israel’s official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust) is a great source, too.
T+L India: Which was the first vintage passport you collected?
Ross Nochimson: I can’t recall the first vintage passport I collected; it was so long ago! It wasn’t anything special, probably nothing more than an ordinary World War II German passport. At the time, I just had an interest in countries and did not pay attention to the historical aspects.
T+L India: Which is the oldest passport in your collection?
Ross Nochimson: The oldest in my collection is a French passport from 1706. Another document—stated 1799 through 1805— includes an early US passport from Hamburg in Great Britain, as well as one from 1814 signed by James Monroe, then Secretary of State.
T+L India: Which passport from your collection is most dear to you?
Ross Nochimson: I really don’t have the dearest documents in my collection. But my friend in Israel and I have a top 10 and it’s really difficult to tease out the number one of the more significant documents!
I would probably say my Queens’ Messenger passport from 1953; an early US passport from Great Britain, signed by Former US Senator Rufus King in 1805 who was appointed by Thomas Jefferson as the ambassador; a US diplomatic courier passport from 1948–49; several German-Jewish escape Passports, including the extremely rare Fremdenpass (issued by the Nazi police authorities) with a red J.
T+L India: Recently, you made headlines in India for finding a famous Indian doctor’s passport. How did you find this document?
Ross Nochimson: I found Dr. Nanavati’s (after whom many hospitals have been set up in Mumbai) passport on eBay. I plan to donate the document to the hospital when I die at the hospital.
T+L India: What do you think will be the future of travel documents?
Ross Nochimson: I think that travel documents will be obsolete in the future and that people will be chipped with identification implants—which is sort of unfortunate and Orwellian. But that’s the direction I see things going, unfortunately.
T+L India: Do you think vintage passport aids in the preservation of history? How so?
Ross Nochimson: I absolutely believe that vintage passports aid in the preservation of history, especially in significant times of distress when people had to escape a bad situation. [They help make records of] diplomatic processes where a Courier or Diplomatic attended an important meeting. For example, I have a German courier passport from 1941 where the passport-holder was repatriated to Germany after the initiation of hostilities between Germany and Russia.
T+L India: What is your earliest memory of travelling?
Ross Nochimson: My earliest recollection of foreign travel is a trip to Europe in 1971 with my parents. I visited France, Italy, Great Britain, Spain, and Portugal.
T+L India: Do you meet up with other collectors?
Ross Nochimson: I’m really not a world traveller, but I turned out to be with respect to these documents. The collectors I like to visit, live in Singapore, the Netherlands, France, Germany, and Canada. I visit Israel on an almost yearly basis to visit another prominent collector and make trades of documents.
T+L India: You post your collection on social media. What urged you to do so?
Ross Nochimson: Nobody else was doing it, apart from two websites. I first got on TikTok and Facebook while we were quarantining at home during COVID-19 in the spring of 2020. My Facebook page grew at a slow pace. I only have about 600 followers on that page. I started TikTok six months later and it exploded to 86,000 followers!
Social media is kind of a mixed bag for me! I have my most success on Instagram with almost 50,000 followers. A month ago when I opened up my page, I was gaining as many as 2,500 new followers a day and doubled my viewership by 100 percent in two weeks!
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