Friday, November 18, 2011

Unused Antique French Playing Cards

Earlier this year I made a post about Early 20th Century French Playing Cards, in which I show an image of an original wrapper that was used to wrap the deck, as well as a facsimile deck with a reproduction of a wrapper. Here is a picture of two near mint condition early 20th century French decks, still sealed in their original wrappers, that have survived a century and ended up in my private collection.

antique French playing cards with wrappers
Both of these decks are by Grimaud, which I believe to be the oldest surviving maker of playing cards in the world; although Cartamundi claims this title, although that company is actually the product of a merger of three makers (Brepols, Van Genechten and Biermans) and the name Cartamundi never existed before 1970. Whatever the case might be, I have here two antique Grimaud decks in their original wrappers.

Due to the fact the wrappers were just cheap packaging, at the time these cards were made, most of the decks that reached the old age of 100 survived without their original wrappers. However, the maker's name never appeared on any of the cards from any of the Portrait Officiel decks, so the decks that survived without wrappers are sometimes difficult to identify. One clue that connoisseurs use to identify the makers is the color palette of the court cards. Each maker used a different palette at different times to hand color all the court cards. So, the best way to identify the maker of any particular deck is to reference it to some decks that were never separated from their wrappers.

Below is an image that shows exactly what I am talking about. Both cards came from decks that were produced around 1910. The jack of clubs on the left is from a Grimaud deck and the jack of clubs on the right is from a Dieudonné deck. The line art on both cards is identical, but the coloring is different, basically a choice made by the makers.

Antique French Jack of Clubs
Another identifier is of course the back design of the cards. Some patters were commonly used by many makers, but there were still some subtle variations that can now be used to identify the makers.

I am not really sure how much these decks could be worth. They are certainly worth as much as someone is willing to pay for them. What I do know is that the number of decks that survive is gradually decreasing, as time goes by, and the number of collectors is gradually increasing, as the population of humans continues to grow. I also know that any deck accompanied by its original wrapper carries a higher price tag, simply because most wrappers are long gone.

In closing, I might as well mention that there is a useful online resource for antique French playing cards on the Cary Collection of Playing Cards page.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

19th Century French Playing Cards

In my earlier post, Early 20th Century French Playing Cards, I spoke about some of the characteristics of French playing cards, from the early 20th century. In this post, I would like to describe some of the characteristics of 19th century French cards. The purpose of this post is to share some of the information that I know, to help collectors. Here are a couple of 19th century French decks, from my own collection.

19th century antique French playing cards
The basic designs of the cards are the same as the early 20th century decks, known as Portrait Officiel. The most noticeable difference between late 19th century and early 20th century French playing cards is the absence of corner indices, from the decks that were made before the 1890s. The corner indices were actually an American invention that first appeared in the 1870s, but European makers did not start copying the idea right away. So, if you ever see an antique French deck of cards that has corner indices, you can be pretty sure that it does not predate the last decade of the 19th century.

The other important detail is the tax stamp.

The two decks shown in the photograph both have a tax stamp on the ace of clubs. That indicates that these decks were produced in the late 19th century. Earlier French decks had no tax stamps because the cards were printed on watermark paper, which had to be purchased from the government. It should be noted that French decks continued to be printed on watermarked paper even after the introduction of the tax stamp on the ace of clubs.

During that era, French playing card makers didn't print their names on any of the cards. The names of the makers were only printed on the wrappers. Most wrappers got lost, so identifying the makers takes a bit more knowledge. I once stumbled across a French site that described the colors that various makers would use on the court cards, at certain times. The court cards were printed and then colored by hand. A good source of information would be any unused deck of cards that has survived to this day, with its wrapper intact. I happen to own two such decks and will be making a blog post about them at some later time.

In this post, I've described just some of the main characteristics of 19th century French playing cards. Of course, there are a lot more details that I did not mention and I wish to save them for another post. I also happen to own a counterfeit 19th century French deck, that I purchased knowing it was a fake. I will do a separate post about it and describe some additional characteristics of 19th century French cards.