Rare Columbian Tickets & the Complexities of Valuing Them

Below is what we believe to be a unique ticket, but how does this play into the list of the most rare tickets from the World’s Columbian Exposition. There are many railroad, custom travel and similar tickets.

441-WCE maine gov RR Tix.gif

This one is great. It sold for perhaps $150 many years ago, but what’s it “worth?” I certainly had many similar tickets in my collection that I sold in 2008 and while they were in demand, the price was nowhere near what others were.

I thought it would be a nice idea to write an article about the rarest Columbian tickets as I work on the earliest stages of a new book cataloging the tickets and passes of the fair. I’m overwhelmed with the text I could or should be writing.

The book needs to catalog ALL of the tickets possible to identify, but what about the historial background of each, the values and the anectdotal information about them? The deeper I get into this project the more I see the possibillities of a ridiculously massive volume. That’s neither what the market wants or that would be financially feasible to produce.

But in planning a list of the top/rare ten or twenty tickets brings two difficult questions to mind: How can one establish a “value” in dollars when the collecting community, the market and the selling prices vary so dramatically? And how do we address “demand,” which is more volatile than in virtually any collectible field I’ve ever run across.

First, prices and “value” change greatly even if the known rarity does not. We have seen in many cases where a ticket where perhaps 3 to 5 are known to exist sells for say $500 in the year 2000. In 2010 it might bring $1,000 and in 2015 $350. One might question the logic or accuracy of such statements, but unfortunately, they’re quite accurate.

Having purchased tickets for my own collection as early as 1980 I have seen this type of change both up and down in selling price repeatedly. Unlike stamps or coins which have a long history of catalogs and price guides–as well as tens of thousands of collectors in each hobby–any world’s fair and especially the Columbian, lacks all the elements that could provide continuity to pricing.

When I first entered the field, there were a half dozen well-known and well-versed collectors of Columbiana. Tickets seldom changed hands for several hundred dollars. One exception, a total anomaly in this entire subject, has been the Ferris Wheel. It’s always been expensive, even decades ago. Why? Because of the mystique surrounding it. There are easily a few DOZEN examples of Ferris Wheel tickets in collectors’ hands.

Still you would be very hard pressed to buy one for less than $1,000. Some years ago I saw a tattered mess of a Ferris Wheel ticket sell for exactly that much. But with a little luck you could still find one out there in perfect condition for the same amount.

How does this make sense? In any collectible or economic field we all know that the bottom line is “supply and demand.” If there are 1,000 of a ticket and there is still demand for 1,000 or more, the price stays up. If there are five known tickets and 50 people who want one, the price goes up. And so on….sort of.

In the Columbian ticket market, as I have studied it for 35+ years, the rules don’t seem to apply. Is there really much greater demand for a Ferris Wheel ticket than there are tickets to be purchased? To some extent there must be because no matter when one becomes available, there is always someone around willing to pay the asking price of $1,000 or even $2,000. Yet if we can verify that 35-50 such tickets exist, what about the many Columbian examples with just one or maybe two or three known? How can they bring substantially less than a Ferris Wheel ticket?

My conclusion to this is based only on my own experience buying and selling. I firmly believe that the upper tier of collectors willing to purchase ultra rare tickets is tiny. Whether looking at the 1980s or the 2000s there have always been a very small handful of highly knowledgeable and very aggressive ticket buyers/collectors.

Today, due to ebay, we have a base of several times more Columbian collectors than ever before. But we till have that small handful who understand the rarities and their history AND are willing to pay top dollars for what they know to be the ultra rare tickets.

So how does this play out in today’s marketplace, certainly of major concern to me as a buyer and a seller and a researcher and writer.

If the top twenty Columbian tickets of all-time were to show up every so often on ebay what would they fetch? My assumption is that many would bring LESS than they did over the last couple of decades, while the other half might well exceed the historical highs.


Back to the collectors. Without 10, 20 or 50 years of personal Columbian collecting history, how can a serious but relatively new collector be expected to know about the unique ticket from the past….that is now being resold or perhaps a second specimen has been unearthed.

It is almost impossible to discuss this in hard terms without citing specific tickets and their specific “values” or rather, their selling price some time in the past.

All this has led me to a better understanding of what a catalog of tickets should contain.

I cannot list a Ferris Wheel Ticket or a music ticket or a police pass and assign a value. The value twenty years ago might have been $1,500 for a given ticket and tomorrow on ebay it might bring $600. So what is the value? By using comparitive rarities and historical importance I might be inclined to assign a value to one of $800, another of $1800. But I believe that is the wrong approach. What I intend to do is discuss the rarity, important and  previous selling price. Then, with a logical market price of $1,500-$2,000 we still may see it sell for half as much or twice as much. The one factor no one can determine or establish is WHO is available to bid when an item comes to auction and how those bidders personally value a rare ticket.

With, compared to myriad other fields, how few Columbian collectors exist and how very few exist with the financial ability to spend several thousand dollars on a ticket, “value” is almost a meaningless term. I recall vividly in the earliest years of ebay when I was one of a half dozen so-called upper tier ticket collectors. A wonderful small collection of Columbian tickets came on ebay. I knew for a fact that three of the other five collectors who should have been strong bidders were on vacation. I don’t recall the status of the other two, but I do recall quite vividly that I was able to win the group of tickets for about one third of my anticipated price–just because the others weren’t there to bid.

I suspect that today a similar situation might arise and then, attempting to use the selling price as a legitimate “value” would be dramatically misleading. All this is going to be factored into the catalog I produce. The closest I intend to come to valuing any pieces can be found in the language I’ve used below in listing rare tickets.

As I noted, I wanted to share a list of some of the rarest tickets. I do so with the caveat that I am not placing them in any order or rank, nor am I assigning a present value. And there are plenty more rarities that belong in the list of “rarest Columbian tickets.” The final list might contain 25 or 35 total tickets. Here’s a start.

  • The only known PROOF of the Ferris Wheel ticket, in all black ink, front only on was on slick proof paper. I sold this about ten years or more ago for $1,800. Today I would think it should bring close to twice that amount. I’m not including the basic Ferris Wheel ticket in this list because while it always brings a high price, and it certainly could be categorized as “rare,” those listed here are unique or examples of tickets where far fewer than the Ferris Wheel tickets are known.
  • Camera Obscura was planned as an exhibit on the Midway but never came to fruition. It may have had visitors at the earliest stages of Midway construction but was not completed nor opened. This ticket brought the highest price known for a Columbian ticket at Heritage Auction’s sale of my personal ticket collection in 2008 at $3,100. I purchased it, with a pair of family photos, on ebay where the ticket was only partially shown. I am sure that most collectors did not give a second thought to the partially hidden ticket and saw the lot as two photos of a couple, one taken at the World’s Columbian Exposition. I was intrigued and won the lot for $35 and it took several years before I was able to place the ticket in its context and to understand its rarity. What would it sell for today? My gut says maybe only half what it sold for in 2008–unless more than one collector were to be aggressive in trying to buy it.
  • A very strange pass from the Austro-Hungarian Gazette is the only known ticket or pass to the fair from this very obscure publication. The pass was very oddly designed and looked almost as if it were a joke. Still, it did bring nearly $800 a decade ago. While it is clearly unique, it is also highly unusual and might not excite buyers.
  • This is the only example known of a “token ticket” for Stand 20 that identified the concession. It was for soft drinks and looked much like a 1960s esoteric design squeezed into the standard “stand” size ticket. It sold for approximately $1,500 in about 2005-6. I was an underbidder at the time. Again, it doesn’t fit the formula for many tickets, but certainly should be “worth” more than its previous selling price.
  • A complimentary pass (not ticket) for the Intramural Railway sold for $999 about the same time and it was assumed to be unique and probably is. Because the railway is such an integral and popular element of the fair, I would assume that you would not be able to touch this one for anywhere near its original selling price.
  • While not a single ticket, a group of Intramural tickets–a very rare commissioner’s ticket, an equally rare complimentary ticket and a standard ticket–sold together for $1,912 in roughly the same period as the above RR pass. Obviously, 90% of the price was wrapped up in the commissioner’s and comp tickets.
  • The Oriental Odeon was a theater on the Midway and I know of two tickets that exist, one that I sold in my collection in 2008 for more than $2,200 and one that was owned by the late John Kennel. John was a terrific resource for collectors, a collector much longer than I and a great human being, not just a collector’s friend. I do not know if his family kept his collection intact or if/when it will be sold. In a case such as this, whether there is one or two known is irrelevant–it might as well be unique.
  • I know of only one complimentary pass to the Kilauea Volcano on the Midway and a good friend sold it in 2007 for $2,008. This would have to be one of the most desirable tickets from the Midway.
  • A recent ticket/card for filling out hours for the Rolling Chair Company recently sold on ebay for I believe around $1,000; the one in my collection sold in 2008 for a bit over $1,300. While 3-to-5 may be known, this is a great piece and one that can be researched easily (Aha…in my new history of the Midway, of course) and with so few known, I think there should be no reduction in price today. I believe that the $1,000 sale on ebay was a bargain for the buyer.
  • While the Buffalo Bill Wild West show was clearly not part of the fair (I discussed this in “The Grand Midway” as well) it is lumped in with it by many and for many reasons. Medals (very, very rare) issued have the fair on one side and Buffalo Bill on the other, for example. The only admission ticket I’ve heard of for the Wild West show concurrent with the fair sold for $865 about ten years ago. Again, I’d consider this greatly underpriced.
  • The Arctic Whaling Bark (ship) on display at the fair was one of dozens of free-standing exhibits that were relegated to an “other” class with so many things to see and write about at the time. I sold the only ticket I’d ever seen in my 2008 sale for nearly $900. I would guess that John Kennel had one in his collection and that perhaps another is floating around in another longtime collection. I think that the relative obscurity of the exhibit might keep a ceiling on the selling price, although based strictly on rarity it should sell for much more than it did in 2008.
  • A unique ticket I found nearly twenty years ago and sold in 2008 was a ticket to a Grand Ball for fair employees held on the Midway after the close of the fair. I was elated when I found it and I’ve never heard of another. It sold for just under $1,150. This seems to me to be near the top of any ticket list, in rarity and price.
  • An interesting and NOT unique ticket which still shows up occasionally (I’d guess fewer than 10 are known) is the Vertical Transit elevator ticket. Along with the Hale elevator tickets they are always in demand, quite rare and especially interesting in that elevators were so new in 1893 that they required the purchase of a ticket to ride them. I purchased a lot of 5 or 6 and sold them for up to $795 each in about 2005; at the time I knew of one collector who had another from the same “find.” I would guess that a couple of others might be out there in the hands of collectors. They are certainly scarce enough that today a price of nearly $1,000 each seems quite reasonable.
  • One piece that maybe should or shouldn’t be here–with tokens perhaps instead–is a ten cent good-for chit from the French Cider Press on the Midway. It is about the size of a business card and made of some type of glass or porcelain which is cracked–and it is unique. I don’t have the record of the amount at hand, but I sold it privately to a collector for about $2,000. I would think that this piece, since it would appeal to ticket or token collectors, easily could/should bring more than $2,000 today.

I think it best to stop this list (we may well do another as our work on the book progresses) but hopefully this provides some general insight into the rarer tickets and the ticket marketplace. It would be quite easy to add another dozen to this list of rarities, regardless of their past selling prices. And mentioning the French Cider Press piece also brings to mind the many unique tokens from the fair, which we will discuss another time.

I’m very anxious for your feedback and for input on other rarities with which you are familiar. I’m constantly amazed at how many tickets and stories about them are out there yet to be discovered.





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