I.M.F. Engraved Cards

Engraved Playing Cards, Germany, 1617

by an anonymous artist with the initials I.M.F.

Playing cards had been made as precious objects for wealthy clients since the late 14th century. They were made to look at, admire and to keep in curiosity cabinets, or perhaps to entertain ladies or educate children rather than to play with. These packs often depicted the upper ranks of social hierarchies, as well as trades and vocations, not without parody or satire. Sometimes these miniature art pieces inspired cruder, simpler versions made for play, printed from woodblocks by a commercial artist or woodcutter. Thus their existence had some influence on the everyday, more affordable playing cards which were also being produced.

Above: images from the 1979 Edition Leipzig facsimile that was limited to 999 numbered copies. The facsimile was issued with a 55 page booklet written in German and English. As the booklet points out, this deck, of which there is only one original in existence, was made in the first instance to be a collectable keepsake. This is known from the fact that each card has a different floral back design rendering actual play useless because the value of each card would soon be learned from the particular floral back. There is no attribution to any artist although the engraver, I.M.F is identified on the Nine of Hearts and the name of the publisher, Heinrich Muller, appears on the Four of Hearts. Thanks is given in the booklet to the Staatliche Museen Heidecksburg, Rudolstadt for permission to reproduce in facsimile the original cards in their possession.

Expensive playing cards, gold edged and printed from copper plates, were available for those who could afford them. The demand for these copper-plate engraved cards must have been great because a fair number of examples have survived from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, usually preserved in curiosity cabinets. Although they were rather exclusive items, often they highlight artistic trends, styles and influences from other places, and were also inspiration to commercial workshops where cheaper cards were being produced. Thus it could be argued that the elite were able to influence the lower classes through their expensive playing cards! However, the argument can also be turned the other way, since some examples of fifteenth century woodcut cards can be seen to have influenced copper-plate engraved cards.

In the example we have here, the four Kings are mounted on thrones whilst the Upper and Lower Valets are standing, their suit signs being respectively high or low. The numeral cards have the suit signs at the top, embellished with ornamental scrolls, and small illustrations or vignettes at the bottom. These are all of interest on account of their artistic freedom and were, of course, the standard format for German-suited cards in those days.

However, perhaps the most striking aspect are the watercolour floral paintings on the reverse, which are botanically accurate representations and thus of educational value. It is not known whether they are by the same artist who painted the cards; possibly by someone who practised miniature painting.


Hoffmann, Detlef: The Playing Card, an illustrated history, Edition Leipzig, 1973

Images of the facsimile edition from the collection of Rod Starling, author of "The Art and Pleasures of Playing Cards".

Last Updated March 16, 2017 at 11:18am


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