Friday, December 30, 2011

Counterfeit 19th Century French Playing Cards

This will be my last blog post in the year 2011. So, I better end the year with something interesting, like, counterfeit playing cards. Spotting fakes is all about the details, so this post will be quite elaborate. Hopefully it will also make some collectors wiser and prevent them from being duped; unless you're like me and you actually want to have a fake in your collection, as long as you were never fooled into thinking it was genuine.

When I think of counterfeit playing cards the first thing that comes to mind are counterfeit Bee cards, made in China. But those aren't the only kind of counterfeit playing cards. I've come across some fake antique playing cards. While fake Bee cards are intended to be sold to the general public (and I've even seen some fake Bee decks at a Duane Reade store), fake antiques are made to dupe collectors. Here is a picture of a fake 19th century French deck that I own. What's wrong with this picture?

Fake antique French playing cards
One detail that any collector should be able to spot from across the room is the presence of corned indices on the aces. Why are the aces indexed? Corner indices are an American invention, from the 1870s. European makers started using corner indices in the 1890s. So, according to that historical fact, this deck would have to have been produced no earlier than during the 1890s. But the corner indices look odd. I've seen a lot of old French decks, some indexed and some not, but this is the only deck I've ever seen with this kind of corner indices (i.e. slanted suit symbols without the values). So, there are two possibilities. Either this is a very rare deck from the early 1890s, when French makers just started experimenting with corner indices. Or it's a fake. There are many other details that point to this deck being a fake. And there are for course some details that suggest this deck should be genuine. But isn't that the case with any fakes?

One detail that could be taken as a sure proof this is a genuine antique deck of cards is the presence of the watermark. All French decks from that era were printed on watermarked paper. That was a distinct characteristic of French decks. All the makers were required to print their playing cards on watermarked paper that they had to purchase from the French government. That's how the French government, at that time, made sure all the decks were taxed.

In countries where paper currency is printed on watermarked paper people usually look for the watermark to quickly check that the money is good. It is easy to understand why someone might believe this deck is genuine, due to the presence of the watermark. But the watermark on these cards is not quite right.

Fake antique playing cards
The watermark is very clearly visible on all the cards, especially on the red-suited aces. That might sound like good news, but the problem is that the watermark is too clear. Perhaps I should say, too good to be true. Usually the watermark is not nearly as clear on any of the old French decks that I know for a fact to be genuine.

When I compare the watermarks on these cards with the watermarks on genuine decks I can see, relatively easily, that the images are not identical designs. I can see the differences simply by placing two cards side by side. I believe that the watermarks should be identical on all the decks. After all, isn't that the whole purpose of a government watermark?
Another problem is the quality of the paper. Again, these cards were supposed to have been printed on government paper. So, if you found a watermark on a banknote but the paper didn't feel right, would you believe the money is real?

One reason why the paper doesn't feel right is because these cards were printed on a single-layer sheet of paper. So, if you look at the backs of the cards, and tilt the deck against light to produce a reflection, you will see the watermarks on the backs. That is never the case with genuine decks, because those were printed on double-layered paper; the layer of paper on the face of the cards is watermarked and the layer at the back is just high quality stiff paper. I tried to make a picture of the watermark showing at the back of the cards, as best as I could.

Counterfeit antique French playing cards
The deck is thinner than genuine period decks and the paper feels stiff and shiny, as if it had been sprayed with varnish (which I believe is actually the case). The cards don't fan at all and it is impossible to manipulate the cards in any way. It would be impossible to play a game of cards without constantly licking your fingers, in order to fan the cards in your hand; which brings me to the next point.

On a hunch I licked my thumb and tried to smear the ink, to see what would happen. The ink did smear. Luckily I had a feeling that it would, so I did it very lightly. I believe the paper was in fact prayed with varnish and the card designs were printed on top of it, which might be one of the reasons why the ink smears. The other reasons might be that the ink is not the right kind.

The edges of the cards are also not quite right. It looks to me as if the edges were colored with some kind of alcohol-based felt-tip pen, the produces a shiny finish. I am also not too sure that the corners are right.

Counterfeit playing cards
From the first moment I picked up this deck of cards I never thought they were genuine. My first impression was that the deck was a fake. That was before I even looked closely at the cards.

One other thing that doesn't feel right is the condition of the cards. The deck is in mint condition, and yet, the cards are completely warped and there is not wrapper. How did the cards survive in mint condition for over a century without their original wrapper? Why did someone remove the wrapper if the did not use the cards to play a game? If they did play a game, that ink would have smudged. Why are the cards warped if they haven't been used?

I bought the deck from a dealer in Paris, knowing it was a fake. I even explained to the dealer what didn't look right, but I still decided to purchase the deck because I liked the idea of having a counterfeit antique deck. That's something I would want to have in my collection, but if I wanted to look for one I wouldn't know where to start looking. So, when I was holding a fake in my hands I realized I wanted to have it. So, I paid for it and gave it a home.

When I brought the deck home I discovered some other details, upon closer examination. The most obvious detail is the back design, seen through a magnifying glass.

Fake antique French playing cards
Grimaud antique French playing cards
The Scottish-plaid pattern back design is just too perfect to have been produced with 19th century printing technology. The naked eye sees only lines crisscrossing, but the magnifying glass reveals that the lines are actually made of little dots. That's also the case with genuine decks, but with some very important differences.

The previous two images are photographs of two back designs. One shows the back of the fake deck, and the other one shows the back of a genuine 19th century Grimaud card. Guess which is which?

When you look at a genuine card you can easily conclude that those Scottish-plaid pattern back designs were printed with two separate rollers, crisscrossing, on two separate runs. The Grimaud deck is printed in blue and red and as you can see the dots from one roller never perfectly align with the dots from the other roller. In fact, it would be impossible (and totally unnecessary) to align the two rollers so that every single crossing dot from the left side falls perfectly on every single crossing dot from the right side. But if you look at the fake deck you will see that all the crossing dots align perfectly. That's something that was printed on a computer printer, and not with two 19th century rollers. Plus, there is no natural smudging of the ink, as seen on the Grimaud card, and the dots are so small they are only visible under a magnifying glass.

Hopefully this blog post will help some collectors identify fake antique French decks. I have many antique decks in my collection and this deck stands out like a black sheep, so there is no doubt in my mind that it's a fake. But I have to admit that the presence of the watermarks make this deck a good fake, one that's worth collecting. After all, one day this fake will also become a genuine antique fake, and possibly a rare one.