Rare collection of 17th and 18th century playing cards could fetch £20k at auction

20 November 2023
A extremely rare collection of pictorial playing cards dating from 1675-1898 is expected to go under the hammer at £20,000 at Special Auction Services in Newbury Wednesday 6th December 2023.

The cards were often designed for satirical amusement and provided a social commentary frequently highlighting key moments in history.

The top lot is a set of very rare Thomas Bowles South Sea Bubble Stock-jobbing Cards circa 1720. The South Sea Bubble is said to have been the world’s first financial collapse and each card tells a different story about how money was lost and its controversial link to the slave trade, makes this an important historical pack (estimate: £5,000-8,000).

A set of playing cards (c.1679) depicting four ‘Popish’ plots; The Horrid Popish Plot - the fictional Catholic conspiracy to assassinate Charles II and re-introduce the Catholic faith to England; the Spanish Armada; Dr Parry's plot; and the Gunpowder Plot is expected to fetch £2,000-3,000. 

For quodophiles, a complete set of John Lenthall Love Cards that date from the early 18th century with each card inscribed with a love proverb is expected to fetch £2,000-£3,000. For example, the Seven of Clubs reads ‘Warmly the suppliant lover begs a kiss as the sure earnest of his future bliss' while on the Six of Diamonds is written ‘Musick so softens and disarms the mind; that not one arrow does resistance find'. Another set of cards circa 1718-44 (estimate: £1,500-2,000), comprises well-known proverbs including 'Men and dogs may go abroad, but women and cats must stay at home', 'A faint heart never won fair lady' and 'An ounce of mirth is worth a pound of sorrow'.

Cards with a geographical theme will also be offered in the sale. Miniature map playing cards designed by Map Maker Robert Morden (c. 1676) each feature a county of Great Britain are carry an estimate of £2,000-3,000.

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In addition, Henry Brome First Edition Geographical Cards playing cards circa 1675, with the four suits as four different parts of the world are expected to fetch £1,500-2,000; the hearts describe Europe, the diamonds Asia, the spades Africa, and the clubs America or the West Indies. A suit-mark and Roman numeral at the top identify each numerical card, while the court cards have a bust of a kings or queen, knaves represented by a native of that country.

Other examples include images of Kings, Queens and important figures such as Henry VIII, Elisabeth 1, George IV, Carlos I and George Washington.

Specialist Daniel Agnew says, “It is rare to have one of these 17th and 18th century pictorial playing card sets at auction, so to have this many altogether is very unusual. For things this ephemeral to survive is amazing and I anticipate lots of interest amongst collectors.”

The collection includes 18th and early 19th century playing card sets by the major British makers Hunt, Creswick and Hall, many of which are in exceptional condition. The sale also comprises continental makers and games such as German Igatz Wagner’s Hexenspiel (or Vogelspiel) the game of Witch, with estimates ranging from £50 to £300; as well as amusing Tiffany & Co Harlequin transformation playing cards circa 1879 which are expected to fetch £200-300.