On a rainy day in Paris in 1990, Frank and Annelies van den Bergh ducked into a tiny bookshop where they spotted an illustrated history of playing cards. “I looked at the book, and I was lost,” says Frank van den Bergh, a Dutch banker who, in his younger years, had been a self-described “fanatic bridge player”. The book made a visceral connection to his former hobby and ended up sparking a new one.

Once back in Amsterdam, the van den Berghs contacted a dealer named Harry Kenter and spent “a small fortune” on another reference book and two antique decks of cards. Frank recalls, “We looked at each other and said, ‘Well, what have we done?’” The couple decided to limit the scope of their collection by including only rare and beautiful examples in mint or near-mint condition.

An oval playing card from the diamonds suit with an older woman in a blue paisley dress reflected up and down
Two cards by the ‘Raphael of Cats’ from c1877 in Leipzig
A younger woman in a peasant blouse reflected up and down, in clubs

The Frank van den Bergh Collection now comprises 146 decks of playing cards. Frank completed a definitive book about the collection and since his children are not interested in taking it on, he has decided to give someone else the opportunity — the collection will be for sale with Daniel Crouch Rare Books at Tefaf in Maastricht next week. Spanning the years 1675-1975, it reveals that something as ubiquitous as a deck of cards can act as a backdrop for artistic experimentation, political commentary or educational lessons.

For example, a German artist nicknamed the “Raphael of Cats” created an early example of an oval-shaped deck in about 1877, this one remarkable for its bright colouration (though there are no cats on the cards). A more partisan deck manages to fit the suits’ symbols around engraved images and textual analysis pertaining to the South Sea Bubble economic crisis of 1720. A third set, Jeu de la Guerre (Game of War), made in Leiden c1700, teaches military strategy.

Many cards were used for game play — although never by the van den Berghs, because any nick or stain could decrease their value — but some were intended to demonstrate a printer’s skills to prospective clients. Van den Bergh’s favourite is entirely different: a so-called “foundling card”, left with an abandoned baby girl in Amsterdam in 1795. As he describes it, desperate mothers would tuck a playing card in with their child; whole if she planned not to return, cut in a custom design that could be matched up when they reunited. This card is cut — but the fact we only have half might suggest she never went back. “It’s so special, and it’s so emotional,” says van den Bergh.

A playing card has a third cut off and a message written on one side
A ‘foundling card’

The whole is worth more than the sum of its parts, Daniel Crouch says of the collection, which is priced at €600,000. “It would be practically impossible to start and complete this collection again,” he says.

Playing cards have been undervalued for years, he says, but there is now a community of private and institutional collectors bolstering the market. Strong interest in printed ephemera has prompted dealers like him, as well as auction houses, to include playing cards in their regular stock of rare books and maps. A potential buyer, he suggests, could be someone in the gambling arena who has hit it big and might be interested in a top-quality, “core” collection that reflects on that pastime.

As van den Bergh puts it: “If you collect cars, you can buy a Chevy on every street corner. But here, you buy the Bugattis, the Ferraris and Porsches of playing cards.”

Seven red diamonds growing on a plant
A silk and brocade playing card


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