A Comprehensive National Geographic Magazine Collector’s Guide

Few people today have never seen the famous June 1985 cover of the National Geographic Magazine with the Afghan girl with green eyes.

The image is a mere the tip of the iceberg of the content the official magazine of the National Geographic Society based in Washington, D.C. offered its readership over the years. Actually, this year marks the 130th year of publication of a magazine that has turned the science of geography into a household name. It is no surprise that National Geographic Magazine has amassed a huge readership over the decades, and a loyal one too. Many people refused to part with the pages they had just read and so they started collecting them, resulting in collectors across the world today who keep on to their copies of the iconic yellow-squared magazine for various reasons.

Before the age of computers, physically collecting the magazines was the only way of having access to the breathtaking stories and photographs the editorship bound together. Even after the number of subscriptions decreased during the first decade of the 21st century, owning a hard copy is still more alluring than reading an article online. Not only can collectors always read again their favorite issues, but they are preserving them for the generations to come.

Many libraries and schools are subscribed to National Geographic Magazine today, but nevertheless they will hardly even turn down a donation from a local collector. This way, an individual’s passion can serve an entire community. However, elementary schools would mostly be in want of the magazine because the colorful images can be cut out by their students. But even this is a testimony of the standards the editorial board adhered to over the years. You won’t find any nude or inappropriate photos on its pages, rendering the magazine suitable for all ages.

The greatest appeal of the magazine is perhaps its historic role of recording and reporting in detail events such as the discovery of Machu Picchu, the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb, the flight of Apollo 11 and the landing on the Moon, all the way to the current exploration of the dwarf planet Pluto.


Altruistic motives set aside, the magazine is essentially highly collectable. When collecting, people are in general constantly after the full deal and the value of National Geographic Magazine collection in whole could be worth tens of thousands of dollars. Amassing it is a different ballpark. Since the first issue came out in October 1888, the magazine has had thousands of issues internationally, which makes even keeping track of all of them an impossible task.

After WWII, the print run measured in millions, and as of 1995 it was printed in Japanese, which was the first non-English edition. As of two years ago, the magazine can be read even in Kazakh language. Interestingly enough, in all these countries National Geographic Magazine is readily available at newsstands, but back in the States, it was until recently only possible to get your copy if you subscribed.


The whole project had more than modest beginning. The first 14 years were rather dull, with black and white print, a few meteorological maps and dozens of unimaginative and dull scientific texts. However, in 1904 the editor was instructed by the printer to add 11 more pages and being short of time, he simply inserted pictures, rather than text, of the Tibetan capital Lhasa. The move was an instant success, and the January edition of 1905 was lauded for these captivating images, courtesy of the Russian Geographical Society.

The answer to the question how does National Geographic get such cool photos is therefore simpler than most people might think. In the years that followed, they established a world-wide network of photographers for whom it became a matter of prestige to have their photos published in National Geographic Magazine.

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Photography has been the hallmark of the magazine ever since. Especially notable are the covers pages, many of which became icons of pop culture. Beside the most famous one we mentioned at the beginning, other best photos of National Geographic might include a gorilla holding a camera from October 1978 or the shot of a volcanic eruption from the March 1975 edition. Arguably, the real magic of these images with yellow borders is the moment the photographer was able to capture. Many collectors cherish certain copies precisely because of the cover which they can relate to. Shortlisted, the most valuable National Geographic covers to collectors would be the:

“The Afghan Girl” and “The Afghan Girl: Found” – Arguably the best picture ever to feature on the cover of National Geographic Magazine. It was taken in 1984 by Steve McCurry in a refugee camp in Afghanistan. To this day, it serves as the testimony of the plight of civilians and especially children in war-torn regions. After 17 years, the now grow-up woman named Sharbat Gula was found and photographed again wearing a purple burka.

The image was featured on the cover of April 2002 issue.

the-afghan-girl-national-geographic-magazine-june-1985 The Afghan Girl
the-afghan-girl-found-national-geographic-magazine-april-2002 The Afghan Girl: Found
DISCLAIMER: All of the covers above are from the users of NG Collector

“The Smart Dog” – A black and white Border Collie posed for an image with disheveled hair in March 2008. Betsy the dog was a study subject for a test of intelligence and it turned out she knew over 200 words.

“The Hot Spring of Yellowstone” – In August 2009, the magazine covered a story on a supervolcano under Yellowstone national park. The photographer balanced on the skids of a helicopter to capture the captivating image of blue and orange shades of a hot spring which had a footpath with tourists near it.

“The Gorilla with a Camera” – Coco the gorilla has been taught over 1.000 words in sign language, before it expressed a talent in photography as well. The animal loved the flash and managed to take a selfie in a mirror with a little the help from the Nat Geo editor. It was in October 1978.

the-smart-dog The Smart dog
the-hot-spring-of-yellowstone The Hot Spring of Yellowstone
the-gorilla-with-a-camera The Gorilla with a Camera
DISCLAIMER: All of the covers above are from the users of NG Collector

“The Man from Ethiopia” – In April 1965, the American readers could get a taste of the content of Africa through a portrait of a tribal man from Ethiopia, holding a key-like structure.

“The Last Shangri-La Woman” – After India opened the Ladakh region to general public, National Geographic photographers travelled there and that’s how the March 1978 cover came into existence. It shows a woman from this Himalayan region wearing a turquoise hat as a symbol of opulence.

“The Temples of Angkor” - The temple complex of Angkor Wat in present-day Cambodia attracted world attention after the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge regime. That is how the image of a stone face got to the May 1982 cover of the magazine.

the-man-from-ethiopia The Man from Ethiopia
the-last-shagri-la-woman The Last Shagri-La Woman
the-temples-of-angkor The temples of Angkor
DISCLAIMER: All of the covers above are from the users of NG Collector

“Panda Inc.” – “A baby panda celebrates its first birthday at the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington, D.C.” could be the title of this overtly cute image from the July 2006 edition.

“Three Irish Boys with a Horse” – In September 1994 Ireland was changing rapidly. The photographer had been able to capture this in the now iconic image where three Dublin boys are hugging a pony, a draft animal, and looking in the opposite direction.
Of course, this choice is arbitrary, since every fan has his/her own selection from more than 1.500 covers published so far.

panda Panda Inc.
three-irish-boys-with-horse Three Irish Boys with a Horse
DISCLAIMER: All of the covers above are from the users of NG Collector

Another thing about National Geographic Magazine are the maps. They are usually map inserts, but in the recent years they also printed removable fold-out posters or maps. Not every issue has them, but many have been become famous, like the ones used by the Allies in World War II. The most valuable National Geographic maps are hard to pinpoint. Since they are so versatile in nature, it would be best to offer them or acquire them based on their type. For instance, a historical map of Shakespeare’s Britain from May 1964 issue might catch an eye of a Shakespearelogist, a literature fan or a historical society.

The very first map was published in October 1889 and it was fairly local in character, showing the North Carolina-Tennessee-Asheville District. Until the year 2000, there were on average five maps per year, but after that year their numbers dwindled in favor of fold-out posters. In 2001, National Geographic issued a set of eight CDs with all the maps up until the year 2000 in electronic format. Most commonly, the maps originated from the journey’s National Geographic photographers took into various parts of the world.


In addition to the monthly issues, National Geographic Magazine has had several special issues over the years. They are devoted to a single topic and are abundant in photographs, accommodated by a larger paper size. The most interesting topics covered so far would be: “100 Ideas that Changed the World,” “Are We Alone [in the Universe],” “Founding Fathers,” “Best of Europe: 100 Must-See Destinations.” Actually, each special edition has an appeal of its own.

This year saw the publication of a special issue on race, entitled “Black and White.” On its cover, there are two girls who are twins, but are of different skin color. The #IDefineMe campaign by Nat Geo deals with the Race Issue in 21st century America and goes to show that the magazine has topical social and cultural awareness.


If you’re one the millions of fans, then you’re probably wondering how on Earth does one start collecting magazines? Most passionate readers probably store here and there a copy or two, but acquiring a large number of issues requires more than a passion.

Firstly, you have to know how the magazine you collect looks like. Sounds simple enough, but one has to be aware that the first 36 issues are called “red brick” because that was the color of their front page. They just had a simple double line black border and that’s it. Even after the initial years, the pictures did not appear on the cover pages for more than 70 years.

The first image appeared in July 1959, portraying The Star Spangled Banner flying from a pole. In addition, there have been many re-prints of the pre-1896 issues (that year it became a monthly), which are indistinguishable from the original, so you have to leaf carefully through each copy.
By far the best option for purchasing individual issues is online shopping. eBay or Amazon are just a few names in the myriad of online shopping sites where you can browse for the copy you need. Be advised that this single-picking is the most costly means of purchasing.

Even so, the magazine is more than affordable as second-hand copies retail from as low as one dollar to 15 US dollars for some earlier issues. The most valuable National Geographic issues would include pretty much all the issue prior to the year 1907. Compared to the 10 million copies of today’s issues, the beginning of the century issues had little over 10.000 copies. Among the rarest National Geographic Magazines is the issue of 1904 which is virtually impossible to acquire even in a lower, “fine” condition, because this was the very first year pictures were inserted into the magazine, as we explained earlier.

Basically, the further you go back in time, the higher the price gets. In that sense, the very first issue from October 1888 could, in today’s market, be worth well over 6.000 US dollars! Out of the later issues, April 1913 can be singled out because of the first images of Machu Picchu, as well the December 1988 issue which had holograms on its covers. Due to personal preferences, it would be difficult to compile a list of top 100 National Geographic issues, but the aforementioned issues would certainly feature on it.


Now, there are alternatives to collecting. You could always stroll to the nearest library (especially if you live in the States) and read or borrow one of the magazines they have there. However, these issues are mostly recent ones, easily obtainable at any newsstand and in digital format.

Most people know of the National Geographic Archive in which you can peruse online through all of the magazine’s issues. Comprehensive as it may seem, it just cannot replace that feeling of holding the yellow-squared leaves of paper and going through halftone images.

These copies are prized possessions and need to be stored accordingly. Paper has many natural enemies, two of which are the most detrimental: sunlight and moisture. The latter is self-explanatory: don’t let water contaminate the precious magazines. Sunlight can be a little tricky, since artificial light is ok, but direct sunlight definitely is not. In the manner of the bog bodies of which one can read in Nat Geo, the best way to store the magazines is actually the simplest: keep them as you set them down. Boxes under the bed or a cupboard are a perfect location, shielded from sunlight and safe from water. However, be advised that piling them up (literally, height-wise) is probably the worst thing you can do. Over time, their print would “glue” them together, destroying the precious cover pages, as well as back covers.

Most common way of protecting copies are slipcases made from polyester than can hold up to 6 copies, i.e. half a year’s issues. If you own the more valuable issues however, it might be wise to give them some extra protection in the form of a sturdy plastic paper jacket. In the end, don’t forget to organize your collection as well as label it for easier access in the future. Who knows, your kids might be the next readers of it, so it would be useful to make it easily navigable.

Voracious readers often ask themselves are old National Geographic Magazines worth any money? The answer is YES, the magazine is highly collectable as stated earlier. However it lacks a quality grading scale that would determine its value. If we were to utilize the comic book scale, the condition of individual copies would range from “damaged” to “mint.” However, in layman’s terms, there are a few crucial quality factors that determine the value. Firstly, the lauded cover page mustn’t be missing. Copies do sell even without it, but the price can plummet down to 80% of the original value. Secondly, the magazine should have the visual appeal and has to be readable. If there are pages missing, the text is damaged or there are stains, all these factors significantly decrease the value. Nobody wants to buy a copy off you because that particular issue contains a text about Panama, for example, only to find that the pages in question are folded and that your kid has cut out the images. Keep in mind that it is not uncommon to find copes with the images cut out. After all, they are the heart and soul of the magazine, but such copes are worth close to nothing.

Once you’re collection is all spruced up, why not take the next step. We have been discussing the physical appearance and perhaps forgot that the articles and images are the thing you became a collector in the first place. With so many of them in readable condition, you might want to turn them into an encyclopedia of sorts. This is where modern technology steps into place. While your parents would have probably had to inventory everything by pen and paper, you can use your computer or mobile phone. If you wish to read all about the Korean Peninsula, the texts from various issues would be just a click away.


Once you have gone through the entire collection and made some form of digital archive (this is where THE APP comes in handy), you are ready to start trading. As already mentioned, the best place to sell old National Geographic Magazines is the Internet. Browse the shopping sites, join the few forums there are on the topic and don’t forget to put duplicates up for sale, or the ones that are not needed.

The transactions might not start happening instantly, so one must have patience, which shouldn’t be hard for a true Nat Geo fan. Patience goes hand in hand with hours and hours spend reading gripping articles and looking at the mesmerizing images within the covers of the magazine.

Collecting and trading is a journey of its own, enjoy it!

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