by BoardGameGeek reviewer EndersGame
What should we consider as “rare” playing cards?
What determines if a deck of playing cards is a “rare” deck? The term is often used quite flippantly and casually by collectors. For example, with a quick online search, it didn’t take me long to find several lists of “most rare playing cards”. Most of these lists simply have modern decks that fetch high prices or are hard to get hold of because of high demand.
But are those the factors that make a deck rare, and are we even using the term correctly? What factors exactly determine whether a deck of playing cards is genuinely rare: Is it the age of the deck? The going price? The number printed? The current availability?
These are questions that collectors of modern deck can easily get confused about. Many of us even lack the context and experience to answer them properly, other than having a vague sense that if a deck we want is hard to get hold of or costs a lot of money, we tend to think it is rare. People who have been collecting playing cards for a long time and have real experience in collecting vintage and antique decks are often better positioned to answer these questions.
Like many of my readers, I tend to focus mostly on collecting modern playing cards, and really don’t know a lot about vintage and antique playing cards. It was time for me to admit that I was well outside my area of expertise, and to consult a more experienced playing card collector in order to get a more informed perspective on this.
Fortunately I didn’t have to look far. When you are active in playing card forums, you’ll eventually discover the names of some regulars who have real expertise and experience in this area. One name that kept popping up is The Congress Guy, aka Kevan Seaney. Kevan focuses on collecting the Congress 606 brand, and has the goal of collecting one deck of each card back produced between 1881 and 1930. And he loves talking about playing cards. I’d corresponded with him before, and when I reached out to him to do this interview, he quickly and kindly agreed. So let’s hand it over to Kevan, and see what we can learn from this passionate collector, and what he has to say about the topic of rare playing cards, and more.
For those who don’t know anything about you, what can you tell us about yourself?
I’m 46 years old and live in Indiana. I have an amazing 11 year old daughter and I’ve been with my wonderful fiancée for 7 years. I’ve worked in the telecommunications/technology installation field for nearly 25 years. I love playing poker, euchre, and other card games.
How did you get involved in collecting playing cards, and for how long have you been doing this?
Around 2005, I started picking up a deck or two of cards at casinos around the state and we would use them in our family card games. In 2008, I started a family and friends poker league that still goes on to this day, although we haven’t gotten together much at all since last year.
In April 2011, I got the idea to try to find an “old” deck of cards to use in these poker games. I went on eBay and found this neat looking BP Grimaud deck that was from around the 1910s. I don’t think the deck had ever been shuffled! I put it aside and went back to eBay and found a deck of cards made by Congress. At that time I had never heard of that brand, but the box looked cool and the cards were in okay shape. It had the Statue of Liberty on it and flags of some other countries. It dated to 1917 and we used that deck in two or three games.
Slowly from there I acquired more antique decks, Congress and others. I discovered 52 Plus Joker in early 2017 and joined shortly thereafter. I went to the convention for the day and took my dad with me. We were hooked immediately.
What types of decks do you especially focus on collecting?
Currently it’s Congress. All day, every day. That’s not to say I won’t buy a different antique deck or even a modern deck (for poker night). For me, it’s the artwork, the gold edges, the history.
A little over a year after my first 52 Plus Joker convention, I decided to focus only on collecting the Congress brand, to learn all I can about the decks and any history I could, and to document it on a website. Today, some consider me one of the top experts of this brand. On average, I receive about 5 messages per week from people who want to know everything they can about a Congress deck they have.
How did you come to be known as “The Congress Guy”?
At the 52 Plus Joker convention in Cleveland in 2018, I had all my Congress decks on display, and I bought a few decks from other members. When the auction began, I had my sights set on a very hard to find “Lighthouse” lacquer back, and a sealed “Youth” deck from 1916. I was able to win both decks, plus 3 holiday advertisements, which I didn’t even see before the auction. As I made my first bid on the “Youth” deck, I overheard a woman in the audience whisper to someone “that’s the Congress guy”. To this day I have no clue who that person is.
What can you tell us about the origin of Congress Playing Cards?
Congress Playing Cards were first printed in 1881 by the Russell & Morgan Printing Co. (later USPCC). There were two types, stock number 404 (plain edges, discontinued around 1890 or so), and stock number 606 (gold edges). In the mid 1890s through the early 1900s you will see “64 Congress” (64 card Pinochle), as well as “480 Congress” (48 card Pinochle).
“Wide” or “poker” sized decks were the norm until around 1922 or 1923, when Bridge replaced Whist (606W, whist/narrow size, 1910s-1920s) and became the card game of choice. Congress rode this new wave and switched to “narrow”, or “bridge” sized decks and never looked back. However in the 1950s, Congress did produce Canasta and Samba decks that were wide sized.
Congress Playing Cards are still being printed to this day (now being made in Spain), making them (I believe) the longest-running playing card brand, beating out the Bicycle 808s by four years (1885).
What for you is the special appeal of Congress decks?
I love the artwork and the gold edges. These were the top-of-the-line cards of the day, and sold for 50¢ a deck (about $16.50 today). The average wage at that time was 22¢/hr and the average work week was 59 hours.
Average Joes working in the factories may have been able to purchase these decks, but Congress was marketed to “people of society”. The telescoping tuck boxes were expensive to make, and Congress was most likely the only brand that used this box exclusively heading into the 20th century.
I was hooked from the get go. I purchased my first Congress deck in 2011, because I wanted to have an “old deck” for my poker games. Now I’m considered by some as one of the top experts of the brand.
Why are some of these decks so hard to find?
First, these cards were bought and played with over and over again. It’s very hard to find sealed or EX condition decks in the wild because a vast majority are already held by long-time collectors, so that makes it inherently difficult.
Second, singles collectors will break up decks and sell the cards off one by one, and Joker collectors make it hard for deck collectors to have a full 53-card deck (minus any ad cards). There are some Congress back designs that are thought to not exist in a full deck anymore because singles collectors broke up what remaining decks there were (pre-internet age), because some of these decks weren’t real good sellers when they first came out, discarded into the trash when used up, or lost to time.
Now I’m not bashing singles collectors here, but the only issue I have is that truly rare antique full decks (some without jokers) are bought and subsequently broken up. That’s one less deck that we as antique deck collectors don’t have access to anymore and could potentially have been the last remaining full deck in existence. And that’s unfortunate.
What do you consider to be the most difficult Congress decks to find (excluding pre-1900 lacquer decks)?
See my list “10 of the hardest to find decks“ Some examples of decks from this list include:
● The Bayou (1914) – Estimated known complete decks: 1. In 1913 and 1914, the Congress brand printed 5 “landscape-oriented” decks, meaning the images were horizontal and not vertical. The decks were Gala Day, The Forager, Golden Sunset, Evening Glow, and the most difficult to find, The Bayou. The back design is a beautiful bayou scene under the moonlight.
● Clown (1900) – Estimated known complete decks: 1. Clown is one of the decks that isn’t a traditional “work of art”, like you see on other decks of the pictorial series. A clown in all white, sitting on a crescent moon, playing what appears to be a mandolin while a fairy of some kind watches from above. A truly unique back design.
● Yacht (1903). Estimated known complete decks: 0. Estimated known singles: Very few. We may never be able to reassemble a complete deck of this version of Yacht. We know that a US collector has the only known box, and a singles collector has the joker and a couple singles. Aside from a few sample cards in salesman’s folders, that’s it.
● Erin (1918). Estimated known complete decks: 0. Estimated known singles: Very few. Known as the Harp of Erin, this Celtic harp goes by many names, but to the layperson they are all synonymous. The only known deck was bought around 2000 to be broken up for singles collectors. We didn’t even know this until an Australian collector notified me of this story, as we weren’t even sure this deck existed.
● By Heck (1917). Estimated known complete decks: 0. Estimated known singles: 53. This deck depicts a farmer staring in awe of a new machine of the day, the airplane, as if to say “by heck!” as the plane flies overhead. One collector knows this deck was broken up and sold off to singles collectors. This collector also believes he knows where all the cards reside, thus the estimated number of 53.
How do dedicated collectors go about sourcing these and other hard-to-find decks?
You have to have that network of private collectors who aren’t on social media. I’ve gotten to know a few collectors who know these people. Trying to contact them through these collectors or even the 52 Plus Joker email list isn’t easy at all. Most are much older people who don’t use the internet/email very often, if at all. So that makes them very difficult to touch base with. Some of us use eBay and hope to get lucky, other times it’s the yearly conventions.
What kind of prices do genuinely rare decks like these go for?
It depends on a number of factors. Number of known decks, condition, provenance, age (sometimes), desirability to name a few. These decks can fetch a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, the latter of which would most likely be in an auction setting.
When it comes to decks that have “matching jokers” (where the joker is a black and white image of the back design), prices typically start at $100/deck and can go as high as a few hundred, again depending on back design and condition. Some back designs are more coveted than others.
Antique playing cards
Many readers are only familiar with collecting modern decks. How is collecting vintage and antique decks different?
In modern collecting, one can go on Facebook and say “I’m looking for X, Y, or Z deck” and you can find several collectors who have these decks. With vintage and antique, it isn’t that easy. Sure, there are a couple groups for antique collectors, but we aren’t willing to give up what we have because most of us know that it may be years or even a decade or more to try to find another one, depending on the deck in question, of course. Modern decks are very well documented as to how many were produced. Antique decks on the other hand, we kind of have an idea how many were made, but the real question is, how many of these decks still exist?
Is there a difference between “vintage decks” and “antique decks”?
Yes there is. Antique decks typically start in the 90-100 year range, and vintage starts at 20 years, depending on who you talk to.
What are some key things we should know about vintage and antique decks, and collecting them?
The easiest way is to buy the Hochman Encyclopdia of American Playing Cards.
Also, start talking to antique collectors. Most of us have been in the game for several years to several decades. You basically have to get to know one of these people who know the collectors who aren’t on social media. There are a few who do show up to the 52 Plus Joker conventions, and one can start to build a rapport at that time. Like I said before, it’s very difficult to acquire decks from antique collectors, and sometimes it may take weeks of negotiations.
What kinds of things would you look at to determine an antique’s deck’s condition?
Amount of gold edges remaining (if it was a gilded deck), amount of soiling, “foxing” (an age-related process of deterioration that causes spots and browning), creases, box condition, etc.
What kind of grading system do antique collectors use to describe playing cards?
The main ones are: As Issued (AI), Mint (M), Excellent (EX), Very Good (VG), Good (G), Fair (F), and Poor (P).
These are described as follows in Hochman Encyclopedia of American Playing Cards.
● As Issued: A complete deck, in mint condition, with all cards, jokers and extra cards contained in the original packaging when first distributed for sale. It might be unopened packaging when first distributed for sale. It might be unopened or carefully opened for examination, but not necessarily unbroken, would be attached.
● Mint: A complete deck showing no signs of use. Normally all cards would be present as would the original box in mint or near mint condition. The inside wrapper would not be there.
● Excellent: A complete deck that has been occasionally used, but still in first class condition. Gold edges would still be intact and you would be proud to use this deck in your game.
● Good: A complete deck showing signs of repeated use, but still usable. There would be no serious creases or bent/broken corners. The deck would not be swollen or misshapen and would fit comfortably into the original box.
● Poor: A deck not good enough to fit into one of the above categories. It likely would have at least one of these serious faults – bent or broken corners, bad creases, heavy soiling, etc.
● With Faults: A deck in one of the good to as issued categories, but with serious faults such as a missing or damaged card or a damaged, incomplete or missing box.
There are variations of course, which is what +/- is used for. For example, VG+ means better than Very Good but not quite Excellent.
Hochman’s system for describing the condition of a deck’s box is also in common use: OB1 (basically mint), OB2 (some damage but complete) or OB3 (quite heavily damaged and/or some portion missing).
What is the best condition you can expect to find a deck that is over 100 years old?
You typically see VG to VG+ condition. Every now and then you’ll get EX or better.
Do sealed antique decks exist, and is there anything you can share about this?
They sure do! Most of them are held in collections, but occasionally you find them pop up on eBay. That’s how I actually got talking to Jason McKinstry. I found out he was the winner of a sealed Congress deck (that I was bidding on as well) in 2018 and we’ve been friends ever since!
What is the oldest deck you know about?
The oldest complete deck is known alternately as the Flemish Hunting Deck, the Hofjager Hunting Pack, or the Cloisters Pack. It is held in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Cloisters location. This set of cards now recognized as the oldest in the world was originally thought to be just kinda historic. The oblong cards are made of pressed layers of paper decorated with stencilled and hand-drawn designs, and overlaid with silver and gold. This deck dates to 1470 or 1480.
The oldest record of gilded cards dates to 1392 or 1393, and three decks were to have been made as such. None exist to this day. See my article “A quick history on gilded decks“ to learn more.
What are some interesting experiences you’ve had in collecting old decks?
I’ve talked to modern collectors about some of the reprinted decks like Aladdin 1001s for example and they had no idea some of these brands go back to the 1880s and 1890s and they were just blown away! Most new collectors don’t realize how much the past influences the present!
I’ve also found names attached to a few of the telescoping boxes, including a hand-written note from 1906. Through my dad (who’s also the authority on National Card Company), we now know who these people were, what they did, where they lived, etc, effectively bringing these people back to life, in a sense.
Also, with the help of two other Congress collectors and experts, Matt Schacht and Colin Brady, we compiled a list of 10 of the most difficult to find Congress decks. It took us two months of back and forth, and once we each had our lists, we combined them to make the list that’s on the website. In doing so, we inadvertently created a price surge in the singles collecting market with these back designs. Some went up to 5-10x normal asking prices in some cases.
Rare playing cards
What should we consider to be a “rare” deck?
So let’s start with a definition of the word rare: “(of a thing) not found in large numbers and consequently of interest or value.“
The “numbers” portion of the definition is subjective. 10,000, 5,000, 2,500, 1,000, can be considered rare, depending on what you are trying to apply the definition.
I think collectors see these mass produced decks like the Bicycle Rider Backs, which can be found literally everywhere, and compare them to what’s being produced on Kickstarter today. Rider backs are printed in the high tens to low hundreds of thousands a year(?). Whereas you have all these custom decks being printed and marketed specifically to collectors and not the general public at large, meaning you’re not going to walk into a Barnes and Noble or a Target or Walmart and find a Lotrek, Kings Wild, or Stockholm17 deck.
Producers use marketing terms like “limited edition”, “never to be printed again”, “artist proof”, etc. in part to create hype, as well as an artificial scarcity (intentional or unintentional) of these decks. Collectors will scramble to be first in line for fear of missing out and having to buy them on the secondary market for 5-10 times the original price. Now I am not a modern deck collector, but I will buy a new deck for poker night every now and then.
I look for certain parameters when trying to determine (my definition of) a rare deck. How many are still in existence? (Example: 25 remain from an estimated print run of 10,000 vs 1,000 remaining from a 1,000 print run, so basically a percentage of what’s remaining, unless there were only a couple hundred made) How many of those are in EX condition or better? How many sealed decks are out there that we know of?
Many articles about “rarest playing cards” list modern decks with print runs of 1000. Should we be considering such decks as “rare”?
I was told by a good friend and major player in the community that “no modern deck is rare … unless it’s a prototype.”
If you’ve got a 1,000 deck print run coming out and collectors are calling it rare before it’s even printed, that’s an issue. What’s to stop the producer from printing more decks after the initial sale? I’m talking 100% identical, no changes made. Now that “rare” deck that just hit the secondary market isn’t so rare any more because the producer just printed 1,000 or more decks with no way to tell the new run from the old. It’s an unlikely scenario, but it could happen. At this time I’m not aware of any cases of this.
I respectfully disagree with most of those lists, because you can go into pretty much every card collecting Facebook group and find someone with a deck that you’re looking for. The problem is convincing said person to sell it to you. I think the issue, if you will, with these low print runs being called rare is that there are now more collectors than there are decks.
With the decks I collect, it’s not that simple. Most antique collectors aren’t on social media and some rarely show up to 52 Plus Joker conventions. For antique decks with less than, say, 20 known to exist, it’s much more difficult. You have to have personal connections or bring a wad of cash to an auction like Potter and Potter or 52 Plus Joker.
When the modern deck craze slows down and the dust settles, only then will we see what lasts.
If a deck is very old, does that automatically mean that it should be considered “rare”?
No, I don’t think so, because we really don’t know how many are out there. One can’t automatically assume it’s rare without a basic knowledge the amount still existing. In the mid 1960s, most decks like Congress were mass produced in a way that the cards were made in droves and then back designs added later.
Are recent “sold prices” a reliable indication of a deck’s value, and should it be considered rare if it costs a lot of money?
Articles about rare decks commonly list the values as the highest sold price at auction. This is not a very good indicator as to the value of a deck. If you have something that has a generally accepted value, but doesn’t come around much, and then one goes up for auction, you may have 2 or more people get into a bidding war for it. This item may sell for 10x what it’s “actually” worth. It’s not indicative of “actual value”. That’s a margin of error.
You also see this in charity auctions. An item sells for a very high price. Some time later that person goes to sell it and doesn’t get near what they paid for it. Marketing and hype also play a role in determining what will go for a high price.
What would you consider to be genuinely rare?
When you have decks that are 1 of 20, 1 of 7, 1 of 4, etc. like what I have, those are extremely rare.
What are examples of modern decks that you would consider to be “rare”, and why?
Lotrek Blue (50 made), Venexiana (212 made) are a couple of examples that come to mind. The low numbers alone qualify that in my opinion. 50/50 and 212/212 is different from 1000 of 1000 or 2500 of 3000 remaining.
Time will tell with other low print runs as well as how many new collectors will still be collecting decks 10, 20, 30 years from now. There are so many producers of decks today that it’s mind-boggling. This is why I say that time will sort out whose creations will still be standing.
Collecting playing cards
How many decks would you estimate that you currently have in your collection?
If I had to take a guess, my total is probably just over 300 decks. My 1880s-1930 Congress individual back designs total 121, and when you add in duplicates, and even a triplicate, the total is 132. Add in my post-1930 Congress decks and the total jumps to 163.
How do you organize or display your collection?
Currently they are stored away, but within the next few months or so I have plans to display them all, and of course I will post them for all to see once completed.
Which deck in your collection is your favourite, and why?
I would have to say it’s my sealed “The Minuet” deck from 1901. The previous owners are the three biggest names in playing card collecting history. Gene Hochman, and Tom and Judy Dawson. This deck has an amazing provenance, to say the least!
What is the oldest deck in your collection, and what can you tell us about it?
That would be my “Lighthouse” deck from 1885. “Lacquer backs”, as they are known in antique circles, are borderless, solid-color backs, typically with gold ink. Other backs might be yellow with blue or black ink.
How do you go about adding new decks to your collection?
I typically start looking on eBay. I also deal with a couple of friends who don’t mind selling/trading a deck or two. And of course the 52 Plus Joker conventions every year.
If you would start collecting all over again today, would you do anything different?
No, I don’t think I would. I’ve always had a love for antique things, so naturally I would have gravitated toward those cards.
What is it about collecting playing cards that you especially enjoy?
For me, it’s the thrill of the hunt. Some of these decks are extremely difficult to find.
I want to own one deck of every back design of the first 50 years (1881-1930). In our database, there are approximately 370 known designs, most of which have different variations of the back, whether it’s a different color or border. Add these in and it pushes the total upwards of 600. I know I probably won’t have one of each, because current knowledge suggests some of these back designs do not exist in full decks anymore. They were broken up and sold off as singles long ago.
What are your thoughts on the number and popularity of modern custom decks in recent years?
It’s mind blowing to say the least! We are in a new age of collecting and it is great to see lots of different people contributing to the community. I think a contributing factor to the most recent increase in collecting and the slew of new designers is that quarantine gave most of us a lot of free time to go on YouTube and other social media platforms and discover people like Chris Ramsay, Jaspas, and Tyler and Steve of Deckin Around, to name a few. These four and others provided a window to all these new decks and people went berserk, collecting everything they could.
On the opposite end, there has been this huge bubble that continues to expand, and eventually it will burst. They always do. I’m old enough to remember (and was caught up in) the explosion of the sports card collecting genre around 1990. All of a sudden there were numerous card companies vying for collectors to buy their cards. The bubble burst very quickly (Upper Deck had a lot to do with it) and collectors saw their cards tank in value, almost overnight. Collections were being sold for whatever they could get out of them before values bottomed out. I see this becoming an issue in the (somewhat) near future with playing card collecting as well.
What advice would you give someone just starting to collect playing cards today?
Collect what you like. If you’re into the history, talk to antique collectors. If you’re into magic or cardistry, talk to those collectors. Join 52 Plus Joker and come to the conventions. You will see decks that you’ve only read about, and others you’ll probably only see once. And you get to see them first-hand and maybe even handle them! You will also meet most of your favorite designers, too!
I’m grateful to Kevan for being so willing to share his thoughts and experiences about playing cards. He’s clearly a very passionate and dedicated collector. You know that someone is serious about their playing cards when they get a personalized number plate that reflects their passion! And if ever you want to know something about Congress playing cards, he’s the expert. He’s also very generous with his time, and enjoys engaging with the playing card community.
To a collector of modern decks like me, it’s quickly apparent that collecting vintage and antique decks is a whole different game. You can’t just sign up for the latest Kickstarter or head to your favourite online retailer to order the latest and greatest decks. Even auctions and forums won’t produce a deck that you’re chasing nearly as readily as an in demand modern deck. With modern decks, it’s often just a question of being willing to pay the right price, and even if a deck is in demand and fetching big dollars, it’s usually possible to source it somewhere.
But with antique decks, the story is very different. You’re working with a far more limited number of copies, which unlike most modern decks, makes these genuinely rare. And you’ll not typically be able to source them from the usual channels. As Kevan points out, many of these decks are owned by older private collectors, many of whom aren’t actively on the internet. Often you’ll need inside knowledge and personal connections to track down the decks you’re looking for. Information about these decks is typically more scarce as well. It makes the hunt for these rare decks all the more challenging, but all the more rewarding and satisfying when it proves successful.
Due to the rarity of the decks involved, collecting these antique decks typically also comes with a more hefty price tag. The amount that you might consider as an exorbitant expense on the latest Kickstarter project suddenly feels like chicken feed in comparison to the dollars that genuinely rare antique decks fetch in auctions and in private sales. While collecting modern decks is within reach of the average consumer (although it can develop a life of its own once you catch the bug), you’ll be needing a much larger budget if you’re into antique decks, given that most decks will typically fetch triple digit figures, and sometimes even more.
While most of us won’t get started on this venture, I’m just glad that there are collectors like The Congress Guy that have made it into a full time passion, and are so willing to share pictures and information of the treasures that they find along the way.
About the writer: EndersGame is a well-known and highly respected reviewer of board games and playing cards. He loves card games, card magic, cardistry, and card collecting, and has reviewed several hundred boardgames and hundreds of different decks of playing cards. You can see a complete list of his game reviews here, and his playing card reviews here. He is considered an authority on playing cards and has written extensively about their design, history, and function, and has many contacts within the playing card and board game industries. You can view his previous articles about playing cards here. In his spare time he also volunteers with local youth to teach them the art of cardistry and card magic.