Phone Cards That Have Collectors Calling

Delegates to the 1992 Democratic National Convention in New York didn't realize their goody bags contained a small fortune. It came in the form of a plastic card from Nynex, with a rendering of the Manhattan skyline and "D92" on the face. At the time, it was worth $1 in long-distance calls. But today, collectors are scampering for the cards, one of which sold recently for $1,700. "They just disappeared," says Luis Vigdor, a New York dealer.

The Nynex card is one of hundreds of phone-debit cards--many originally issued as promotional gimmicks--that are now hot properties among collectors. Not surprisingly, the craze started in Europe, where phone cards have been in use since they were invented in Italy in 1976. Only in the past five years has it spread to the U.S., where there are now an estimated 5,000 fanciers.

Phone-card values are loosely based on the number that were made and what's pictured on them. For example, AT&T issued only 500 cards for the 1992 America's Cup, and they now fetch up to $1,000 apiece. Nynex distributed 20,000 cards at the Democratic convention--but most got thrown away. Even though 100,000 were made in 1993, a set of 20 Amerivox phone cards, each with a different picture of Elvis Presley, sells for $200, based on the popularity of Elvis memorabilia.

Most U.S. cards come in $1, $5, or $10 denominations. But some companies, in trying to capitalize on demand, are issuing cards with no long-distance time on them. Most collectors consider these worthless. Cards from the likes of Sprint and Nynex are the safest bets since those companies aren't likely to go under, says John Taylor, editor of collectors' magazine Premier Telecard ($78 a year; 805 542-9346).

Other reliable guides include Credit Card Collector ($19.99 a year; 150 Hohldale, Houston, Tex., 77022), International Telephone Cards ($5 a copy; 800 683-0036), and Lin Overholt, a Florida collector who offers a catalog ($5; P.O. Box 8481, Madeira Beach, Fla., 33738).

Stamps weren't originally issued to be collected, yet rare ones sell for thousands of dollars today. Similarly, phone companies weren't thinking "collectibles" when they began producing decorative phone-debit cards. But who knows what they'll be worth in a few decades?

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