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Credit Card a True Limited Edition

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Question: I am the holder of the first American Express credit card, issued in October, 1958. The card is made of paperboard, which was later replaced by plastic.

It is my understanding that a card of this nature is extremely rare and sought after by collectors. What is its fair market price?--H.A.

Answer: The American Express card you hold was first issued on Oct. 1, 1958, according to American Express’ archivist in New York, Stephen Crysko. It was purple with a red expiration date.

Crysko said this card and others are in a historical display in the firm’s executive offices in Manhattan.

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Greg Tunks of Houston, an expert in collectible credit cards, estimated that about 500,000 of these paperboard cards were issued, but that relatively few have survived. There is a good reason for its rarity.

According to archivist Crysko, when American Express issued its next credit card, on April 30, 1959, it told its customers to cut up the paperboard card. The new card, violet in color, was the firm’s first plastic credit card.

Tunks said in a telephone interview that he believes the value of that first American Express card varies widely, depending on its condition.

“I’m aware of at least a dozen in circulation,” he said. But he added that there are “probably hundreds” in collectors’ hands.

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As for price, Tunks said a few months ago he got a letter from an individual who was “willing to pay $750 for one in mint condition.”

But in reality, he said, that probably was an exception and that a more realistic price was in the $300 range.

Tunks, 39, publishes a monthly newsletter, Credit Card Collector, which, he said, has about 200 subscribers, averages 16 pages and has an annual subscription price of $19.50 (address: 150 Hohldale, Houston, Tex. 77022).

It’s difficult to estimate how many credit card collectors there are in this country, says Tunks, who put the number somewhere between 5,000 and 25,000.

Collectible credit cards generally fall into three categories, he said: bank cards (such as MasterCard and Visa); travel and entertainment cards (such as American Express, Diners Club and Carte Blanche), and single-purpose cards (such as those issued by gasoline companies and department stores).

Tunks started his newsletter about 3 1/2 years ago. Collecting credit cards, he said, is “relatively new and was virtually unknown five years ago. Until I started my newsletter, with the exception of a few collectors, (expired credit cards) were regarded as junk.”

To be sure, he said, the American Express card is one of the most popular collectible credit cards. But it wasn’t the first multipurpose credit card to appear in this country. That honor, he said, belongs to Diners Club, which issued its first card in 1950.

According to the Diners Club story, a businessman, Francis Xavier McNamara, was in a Manhattan restaurant that year and realized, at the end of his meal, that he had forgotten his wallet. That night, McNamara came up with the idea for a multipurpose charge card, which sparked a credit revolution.

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In the early days of the credit card industry, Tunks said, small booklets were issued, featuring the credit card as part of the cover and containing several tissue-thin pages telling the consumer where the card could be used.

Tunks said such a Diners Club wallet-sized package, printed in the 1950s, sold for $525 a year ago, one of the highest prices ever paid for a collectible credit card.

Still, he said, not many individuals have been attracted to this collectible.

“People still laugh,” he said, when he talks about collecting credit cards (he said he has about 800 assorted cards in his personal collection). “But people who are well informed don’t laugh. It’s a ground-floor opportunity” for collectors, he said.

The reasons are obvious, he continued. First, only a limited number are printed for a credit card company’s customers. And second, credit card companies tell their customers to cut them up when they expire.

“So you have a double rarity factor,” he said. “They’re the ideal collectible, truly a limited edition.”


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