Aces, Jokers and a Winning Collectible

What if that extra ace up your sleeve is worth much more than the pot? This Samuel Hart illuminated deck of playing cards sold for $2000 in May 2016.

Kings, queens and jacks can make a winning hand. But what if that extra ace up your sleeve is worth much more than the pot?  As card players know, a seriously winning poker hand is a royal flush, five cards of the same suit in chronological order starting with the ace. That suit could be hearts, diamonds, spades or clubs. Or at least that’s what we call them now.

The earliest versions of the modern playing cards began in China in the 9th century known then as a “leaf’ game,” according to Wikipedia, which coincides with the invention and use of woodblock printing. This enabled individual pieces of handmade paper to be stamped with a wooden block design different from each other. The early rules were unclear (may have involved drinking, naturally) and didn’t have suits as we know them today, but instead were illustrated with coins and called money cards.

In July, 1294 “…Yan Sengzhu and Zheng Pig-Dog were caught playing cards…” The cards were confiscated, according to the Wikipedia entry, but it was important because the cards had actual numerals and different suits, the first documented instance where playing cards as we know them today were mentioned.

From China, playing cards spread to the Middle East where the cards of the Mamluk period (12th to the 15th centuries) showed polo sticks, coins, swords, and cups as the main symbols with a complete deck of cards numbering 52. Playing cards found their way to Europe by the 14th century where each region styled their playing cards with acorns, bells, leaves, batons, pennies, chalices, roses, crowns, animals, and helmets. Today, many of these different versions still exist regionally. All were colorful and highly detailed works of art.

The French simplified the playing card format we recognize today into clubs, spades, hearts, and diamonds, as well as the standard set of 52 cards. This c1720 set of French playing cards sold for $8000 in December 2017.

Some standardization was inevitable, though, and it fell to the French to simplify the playing card format we recognize today into clubs, spades, hearts, and diamonds as well as the standard set of 52 cards, a holdover from the original Mamluk decks (not including joker). These design formats were just simply easier to manufacture. Royalty started to appear on playing cards around 1377 with kings represented on horseback or not, and queens with attendants or not and knaves (jacks) finally appearing as well.

Other innovations were introduced after the 17th century onward such as rounded corners (to reduce wear), designs for the back of the cards (to discourage identifying cards), numbers and suits in opposite corners (so as to be displayed on one hand), and plastic coated cards (to last longer).

While finding vintage playing cards before the 18th century recently sold at auction is difficult, the oldest complete set of playing cards from c. 1470 were sold to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1983 for $143,000. A hand painted woodblock deck from 1830 sold for $366, while an individual woodblock hand painted 18th century King of Spades sold for $150.

More recent playing card decks sell easily, although sometimes unclear as to why, such as this #808 deck of Bicycle Rider cards “…with air cushion feature…” and tax stamp that sold for $10,000 (what was the significance?). Most decks with high value seem to be from defunct Las Vegas casinos such as this unopened black deck from the Silver Nugget Casino that sold for $4,972. A deck of 1935 Coca-Cola cards sold for $192 is an early advertising example. Other decks can be easily collected  in many categories for less than $20.

And just when you think that playing cards, with ten centuries worth of collectibles isn’t enough, it turns out that the biggest innovations, and the most collectible playing cards, are the ace of spades and the joker.

Turns out that the ace of spades (which is also the death card or the mark of good fortune depending on who you ask) was the card that showed whether the tax was paid on the deck itself. Popular as they were, playing cards were taxed beginning in the 16th century in Great Britain until as late as 1960. To show that the manufacturer paid the tax, the ace of spades, the very first card in the deck, was first hand stamped, then a preprinted elaborate coat-of-arms, known as “Old Frizzle” was placed in each deck beginning in 1828. Later, a tax stamp in the United States was affixed to the deck itself starting about 1862.

Because of the myriad hand stamped and preprinted tax stamps used, the ace of spades became a natural collectible category all to itself. This set of aces sold for $450 in March 2013.

Because of the myriad hand stamped and preprinted tax stamps used, the ace of spades became a natural collectible category all to itself. Once the tax was no longer collected in the United States after 1965, manufacturers continued to create their own elaborate ace of spades as their own “business” card, so to speak. This set of 63 different vintage ace of spades sold for $450 or about $7 each in 2013, for example, or this Army & Navy 19th century ace of spades that sold for $158 by itself. Many aces can be had for under $10 for so many different categories.

The joker was created in 1860 for the card game euchre (where the word joker is derived). Shown here is a joker featuring a winged devil and frog that sold for $185.

But then you also have the joker. Created in 1860 for the card game euchre (where the word joker is derived), it was used initially as a trump card, but has become more of the wild card for many other card games ever since. Since there was no industry standard for the joker, unlike the ace of spades, it became the card with the most imaginative decoration, used mostly as advertising for individual products or companies. A unique late 19th century joker featuring an ad for Peerless, an alcoholic something or other, was sold by itself for $338, or a joker dressed as a clown advertising the United Drug Company that sold for $16.74. A joker featuring a winged devil and frog that sold for $185 is quite a fanciful example. There are entirely too many different categories for collecting fanciful jokers such as trains, states, flora and fauna, alcohol, or just for fun, with most under $50.

For more about collecting playing cards in any format, deal yourself into The World of Playing Cards or the International Playing Card Society with other playing card associations from Australia to the United States listed here. This online store features such a variety of vintage and collectible playing cards that it just had to be mentioned. And, just for fun, this online video about ten things you didn’t know about playing cards will provide answers to questions you didn’t even know you had.

Ok, I’ve put my cards on the table here, so don’t get lost in the shuffle. Even if the deck is stacked against you, if you play your cards right, a wild card may just make the winning hand. But then we are all just working with the hand we’re dealt, right?

Yes, I know when to fold ‘em.


Tom Carrier is a General Worthologist with a specialty in Americana, political memorabilia and he has been the resident WorthPoint vexillologist (flags, seals and heraldry) since 2007. Tom is also a frequent contributor of articles to WorthPoint.

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