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Antiques and collecting: How to fall for the dealer of the pack; Richard Edmonds investigates collectible playing cards.

Byline: Richard Edmonds

Millions of people will be playing one card game or another over the holiday weekend. Whether it is whist, poker or patience scarcely matters, the small prettily coloured pasteboard rectangles will be dealt out on a thousand green baize tabletops and many many more people will be playing cards on their computers - an activity that is apparently growing. Collecting packs of antique cards has long been big business with sales of these things in London and Paris attracting top dealers and collectors.

But not everything need be expensive - very nice facsimile packs of 18th-century playing cards were once on sale in the Louvre in Paris and they are probably still there attracting the curious like me.

Books on the subject of playing cards are few and far between and so the nicely packaged, small format Collectible Playing Cards by Frederique Crestin-Billet (Flammarion: pounds 9.95) is one of the most attractive things I have seen on this rare subject for several years.

Obviously, everyone has handled a pack of cards at some time. Games of rummy and bridge ease long evenings of boredom and tarot, that mysterious card game of predictions which makes many people uneasy, are all functional within a world of court cards, knaves aces and so on.

Yet the millions of playing cards printed annually give little evidence of their past and I wonder if the croupiers at the hundreds of casinos around the country know much of the history of the things they are using nightly at blackjack and so on.

Cards have transformed themselves over the centuries varying from country to country from the oblongs favoured in Europe and most of the world to the much rarer circular playing cards of India - things I have seen and handled but never actually owned.

The precise origin of playing cards remains an unsolved mystery. Some people believe they were brought to Europe from India by gypsies, a race that has certainly helped to perpetuate the fortunetelling aspect of the cards. Other argue that they were invented to entertain the concubines of the Chinese Emperor Hweh-Tsong in the 12th century. But Egypt, Italy, Spain and Germany also claim fraternity, so to my mind it is all very muddy water. Scholars in the 18th century claimed that playing cards were invented in 1392 to entertain King Charles Fourth during one of his frequent spells of dementia. A little later on, a certain Abbe Rive, something of a specialist in this information it seems to me, wrote that playing cards were originally invented by one Nicolas Pepin. This deluded churchman suggested that the Spanish word for them naipes comes from the letters N P, which are the initials of their inventor. But we can all take that with a pinch of salt.

But although their origins are lost in the midst of time, the dates when playing cards appeared in Europe are possibly made clearer through negative proof. For example, by 1365, playing cards had definitely not been mentioned in the advice given to clerics by the abbot of Saint Germain, who had already forbidden games of dice or other games of chance on pain of being deprived of wine on certain days of the week.

In 1369 Charles the Fifth issued a decree against gambling, but no mention was made of playing cards oddly enough. Petrarch and Poccaccio do not mention playing cards in their writings although they cite other games of chance.

However, by 1379 cards were definitely banned in the German town of Ratisbonne, while within a year we find a record of a payment for playing cards in an accounting ledger used in the Duchy of Brabant (an area mentioned by Shakespeare in Love's Labour's Lost). By 1381 we can discover an undertaking made in the presence of a Marseilles solicitor by one Jacques Jean, son of a merchant of that town (and soon to embark for Alexandria) stipulating that he will refrain from practising games of chance while away from home - particularly card-playing.

A few years later the Provost of Paris prohibited officially the playing of cards, dice, tennis, bowls and skittles - especially on working days, which means that by the end of the 14th century playing cards were certainly circulating in Europe. And, naturally, a couple of hundred years later, Elizabeth I was getting a kick out of winning at cards in spite of a certain section of the Protestant church seeing these cards (rather larger than the ones we are used to today) as the work of the devil.

The lovely illustrations which appear throughout this smart little book which is so reasonably priced present another case searching carefully amongst the mixed stock at antiques fairs where sets of Victorian 'Happy Families' card games jumble together happily with jewellery, tiny boxes, lace, cut-out pictures and possibly sets of early playing cards.

Different patterns are discussed in the book along with the change in the style of the court cards.

Yet the figures depicted on early playing cards were usually anonymous and this was the case right up to the end of the 16th century. But there was a trend (still followed in Italy today) of 'portraits' which showed characteristic ways of representing, kings, queens and jacks according to the region they came from. French card makers had the idea of giving these court figures names taken from the bible, antiquity, medieval, epic poems or even contemporary life. Figures included King David, Judith, and even Joan of Arc.

In a similar way to playing cards no one knows exactly when tarot cards began. Many have suggested that the cards - particularly the 22 Major Arcana - evolved from the ancient Egyptian papyrus books that symbolise spiritual life journey.

The earliest known tarot decks originated in 15th-century Italy during the Renaissance, when interest in Ancient Egypt and its arcane rituals was high certainly among men searching for the elusive Philosopher's Stone, which, through mysterious alchemical processes was able to turn base metal into gold (or, at the very least, cure toothache).

It was the complexity of tarot which caused it to fall from favour, but the cards reappeared with a vengeance during the French Revolution, when cartomancy reflected the horror of life as the guillotine went up in public squares and life was held cheap.

The antique tarot cards shown in the book are very beautiful like all the other illustrations. All one needs now is money to rush off and purchase these things. I shall get out my everyday tarot pack and use it to see if a few quid is likely to be coming over the horizon in the next few weeks - and then, we'll see.


Mention of playing cards can be traced back to the 14th century
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:May 3, 2003
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