The World of Playing Cards Logo
Published June 05, 2024 Updated June 17, 2024

Are Playing Cards a Good Investment?

Playing cards can appreciate modestly, with historical annual gains of 2-3%. Rare cards offer higher returns; condition and initial price impact value.

Army & Navy Bicycle Capitol Congress Tigers Collecting Lady Charlotte Schreiber Sale List Valuation Add to Collection

Once a collector has parted with some serious money (and I suspect that covers most of our membership), it becomes natural to wonder if this money is gone for good or whether our cards might hold some or all of their value? Indeed, is it even possible that they might some day become worth more than we paid?

The first motivation for looking into all this came from a note by Sylvia Mann with the title “Another Sale of a different era”, in The Journal of The Playing Card Society, Volume 4 No. 3, p 35, from February 1976. There she says

“Recently, there came into my hands the sale catalogue of the sale of the duplicates from Lady Charlotte Schreiber’s collection at Sotheby’s on 1st and 2nd May, 1896, prices for those lots sold on the second day being written in the margin.”

Lady Charlotte Schreiber is well known, to British collectors at least, as one of the very first serious collectors of playing cards in Victorian Britain. Her collection is described in a massive three volume catalogue and now lives in the British Museum.

Some of the prices from Sylvia Mann’s note

Left: prices from Sylvia Mann’s note on the sale of Lady Charlotte Schreiber’s duplicate playing card collection at Sotheby’s, 1896, showcasing a variety of historical and rare packs.

The challenge now is to find realistic modern-day prices for the same cards. In fact, we are most unlikely to find the cards that are literally the same ones and we cannot tell if the cards in the two sales are in the same condition.

Nevertheless, if we find a reasonable number of examples we can hope to find a balance of items where the cards sold recently average out at a similar condition to those sold in 1896.

In modern auctions (the examples are from the sales of major collections - Kaplan, Hawes and Ortiz-Patino, at various dates 2006-2017), we find eleven examples matching nine entries from the 1896 listing.

Above: E. Olivatte ‘Kaloprosopion, Beautiful Disguise’ Transformation Playing Cards sold for $2,800 at Potter & Potter Auctions on May 6, 2017.

One example will show how the calculation proceeds: the pack shown is the Olivatte transformation, the first item on the 1896 list, shown with two prices £1 5s and £1 6s. The ‘5s’ and ‘6s’ means five and six of the old shillings, which were twenty to the pound, so the two prices in decimal notation become £1.25 and £1.30.

We see in the image above that this example sold for US$2,800 in May 2017. Our first step is to convert this US dollar sale price to £2,174 – using the 2017 exchange rate of 1.2878 dollars to the pound.

It remains to compare a price of £1.25 (or £1.30) in 1896 with the sale for £2,174 in 2017. The purchasing power of the dollar has been eroded by inflation so we know that £1.25 was worth more in 1896 than it would be now. To quantify this, we conventionally use an index of consumer prices, a number that tracks the price of a mixed selection of goods in a standardised ‘basket’.

If you would like to know the technical terms in economics and finance, we begin with ‘nominal’ prices, meaning prices as they were named and specified at the time. Dividing these by the consumer price index turns these into ‘real’ prices. These represent a better comparator over time.

Above: Mortier’s Maps sold for £17,500 in 2014.

We use the website of economist Robert Shiller at Yale, and find the 1896 index is 8.5, the 2017 index is 1071.9, and so the average consumer price increase is a factor of 126. Dividing this out of the final price, the final real price is 13.8 times the initial real price. This equates to an average annual gain of 2.2% real.

Taking all the packs we found, and summarising:

Price (Adj.) Pack Title Real Annual Gain
£576 Popish Plot 1.6%
£158 Olivatte 2.2%
£184 Gumpennberg Tarot 2.6%
£95 Pasquin’s Windkaart 2.6%
£34 Jeu de la guerre 2.9%
£14 Gassmann Tarot 3.2%
£71 Mortier’s Maps 4.8%
£14 Vandenborre Tarot 4.9%
Average 3.1%

The Olivatte result uses the average of two 1896 prices, the Gumpennberg uses the average of two 2006 prices. These have been sorted on the annual percentage gains, and note how the initial prices are high for the cards with subsequently low returns and vice-versa. This suggests a clear recommendation: be sensitive to the price paid before investing - a careful approach rather than thinking of any packs as a special “must-have” at any cost.

The cards in the 1896 sale were all rather ‘fancy’ and certainly nothing merely standard.


Our next investigation aims to balance that. We have prices of the full range of United States cards from Marshall Field, circa 1885-86.

Left: descriptive price list of United States playing cards from Marshall Field & Co., Chicago, featuring a variety of card types and prices per dozen and per gross.

The prices above are for a dozen packs and for a gross (12 dozen or 144 packs). We take these as wholesale prices and we then have to apply some kind of mark-up for the collector. If we understate the purchase price, we will overstate the gains afterwards.

We have matched entries here with items from (recent) club auctions like the example shown.

Above: Tigers #101 playing cards, c.1891, rare U.S. Printing Co. issue with darker Joker tone and slight bending, sold for a minimum of $275.


Above: 2018 Club Mail Auction Results by Steve Bowling: Tigers 101 US1a playing cards, with a high bid of $425, sold live.

The analysis makes the inflation adjustment over a long period of time just as we did before. In the Marshall Field catalogue we see that Tigers 101 cost 5.2¢ (62.5¢ for 12) IN 1885-86. We assume a mark-up of 50%, so the retail value is 7.8¢. Allowing for inflation this is equivalent to a modern $2.91. This is a very sensible result for a single pack of standard cards. We see that the c1891 pack in the 2018 auction sold for $425, a gain of 146 times over the $2.91 equivalent price, or a 3.8% annual gain over 133 years.

We repeat this exercise for all the examples we can find in recent auctions and we find:

Card Type Adjusted Price Club Sale Annual Gain
Congress $32.74 $260 1.6%
Treasury $29.41 $170 1.3%
Treasury ‘89 $28.92 $240 1.6%
Army Navy $20.64 $150 1.5%
Sportsman $14.70 $220 2.0%
Capitol $9.80 $185 2.2%
Texan 45 $8.14 $350 2.9%
Bicycle $7.02 $225 2.6%
Tigers 101 $2.91 $425 3.8%
Average annual gain 2.2%

Here the cards are in price order with the most expensive first, so again the bigger gains are made by the cards that were initially cheap - even though these were seen as lower quality.

Here the average gains (2.2% pa) are similar to before and just a little lower (3.1% pa earlier).

We have so far compared prices at two different times. It is also possible to infer something about the pricing of older versus newer cards from a single snapshot at one date. For this investigation we have used the Hochman Price Guide - the 2014 supplement to the Encyclopedia of American Playing Cards by Tom and Judy Dawson. We have taken only the ‘mint’ prices because the other conditions are almost exactly proportional (eg prices for good condition are mostly all half the mint).

We show (next column) a set of entries, and we have added dates for each set of cards by hand.

Left: page from the Hochman Price Guide listing various USPC playing cards, including Tigers #101 series and Sportsman’s #202, with values and dates ranging from 1881 to 1915.

The analysis then consists of taking all the standard sets and removing a few that are clearly very different (such as the expensive transformations and illuminated sets). That done, we can average values of the cards according to age.

Left: bar chart from Hochman (2014) displaying average prices per pack of playing cards, showing a significant increase in value for older packs, peaking in 1824.

We already knew older cards tend to cost more; this analysis enables us to quantify this at 3.4% price growth per year.

It is less clear what is changing here. We are interpreting all the differences as being age related. However, it could be that the price of the pre-1880 cards for example also represent a ‘golden era’. As modern cards age they may get more valuable but not so much as the golden era cards.

We conclude with some general advice - not least that the industry standard health warning applies ‘the past may not be a good guide to the future’. However, we did note reasons why cards could gain more than inflation - the genuine wastage rate of cards including antique cards plus demographics of a population with growing leisure and disposable income.

If we take 2-3% annual gain as an average - with absolutely no guarantees - we can reasonably hope to retain and slowly gain value, but equity investments are better for long-term finances.

avatar
8 Articles

By Paul Bostock

Member since May 07, 2024

Paul has been a collector of playing cards since his early teenage years, the mid 1970s. In the last 20 years or so he has specialised in standard English cards and their story. His collection, including many other English Standards, are featured on his website plainbacks.com. Paul is currently editor of Clear the Decks, the Journal of 52 Plus Joker, the American club for playing card collectors, and is a member of the IPCS Council, an EPCS member and a Past Master of the Worshipful Company of Makers of Playing cards, a City of London livery company.


Related Articles

Woodblock and Stencil Jack of Clubs

Woodblock and Stencil Jack of Clubs

A limited edition art print of the Jack of Clubs 1984 woodblock joker.

Woodblock and Stencil Queen of Clubs

Woodblock and Stencil Queen of Clubs

A limited edition art print of the Queen of Clubs 1984 woodblock joker.

Woodblock and Stencil Jack of Hearts

Woodblock and Stencil Jack of Hearts

A limited edition art print of the Jack of Hearts 1984 woodblock joker.

Woodblock and Stencil Joker

Woodblock and Stencil Joker

A limited edition art print of the 1984 woodblock joker.

The Douce Collection

The Douce Collection

The Douce Collection of playing cards in the Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford.

Are Playing Cards a Good Investment?

Are Playing Cards a Good Investment?

Playing cards can appreciate modestly, with historical annual gains of 2-3%. Rare cards offer higher...

Introduction to Collecting Themes

Introduction to Collecting Themes

Playing cards can be broadly categorised into standard and non-standard designs, with collectors app...

2016 Romeo and Juliet playing cards

Romeo and Juliet playing cards

Romeo and Juliet playing cards illustrated by Belgian artist Virginie Carquin 2016.

Collectors’ Playing Cards for Sale

Collectors’ Playing Cards for Sale

Some interesting playing cards for sale.

1993 Centennial Olympic Games playing cards

Centennial Olympic Games playing cards

Centennial Olympic Games playing cards celebrating the centenary of the modern Olympic Games, 1896-1...

2012 Bicycle Negro League Baseball Museum

Bicycle Negro League Baseball Museum

Bicycle Negro League Baseball Museum souvenir playing cards, USA, 2012.

2010 Bicycle Tattoo

Bicycle Tattoo

Bicycle Tattoo, USA, 2010

2013 Bicycle Favole

Bicycle Favole

Bicycle Favole playing cards featuring the designs of Victoria Francés, USA, 2013

2013 Bicycle EveRydAy zomBIES

Bicycle EveRydAy zomBIES

Bicycle “EveRydAy zomBIES” playing cards with artwork by Rob Sacchetto, USA, 2013.

2014 Bicycle Blue Collar / White Collar playing cards

Bicycle Blue Collar / White Collar playing cards

Bicycle Blue Collar / White Collar playing cards, USA, 2014.

2012 Bicycle Zombie playing cards

Bicycle Zombie playing cards

Bicycle Zombie playing cards with hints on how to survive a zombie attack, USA, 2012.

2018 Bicycle Stained glass playing cards

Bicycle Stained glass playing cards

Bicycle Stained glass playing cards adorned as multi-coloured stained glass, USA, c. 2018.

2014 Bicycle Tattoo Golden Edition

Bicycle Tattoo Golden Edition

Bicycle Tattoo Golden Edition created by Phoenix Playing Cards of Toronto, Canada, 2014.

2013 Bicycle Elves & Orcs

Bicycle Elves & Orcs

Bicycle ‘Elves & Orcs’ playing cards illustrated by Nathanael Iwata, USA, 2013.

2011 Bicycle Robocycle

Bicycle Robocycle

Bicycle Robocycle playing cards with quirky robotic illustrations by Duct Tape & Glitter for Theory ...

2015 No. 17 (Bicycle®) playing cards

No. 17 (Bicycle®) playing cards

No. 17 playing cards designed by Lorenzo Gaggiotti, Sweden, 2015.

2014 Bicycle Flight playing cards

Bicycle Flight playing cards

Bicycle Flight ‘Airplane’ and ‘Airship’ playing cards, homage to aviation, 2014.

2015 Bicycle Ancient Machine playing cards

Bicycle Ancient Machine playing cards

Bicycle Ancient Machine playing cards designed by concept artist Juniardi Satyanagara, USA, 2015.

2015 Bicycle Panthera playing cards

Bicycle Panthera playing cards

Bicycle Panthera playing cards designed by Juniardi Satyanagara, USA, 2015.

2015 U.S. Presidents playing cards

U.S. Presidents playing cards

U.S. Presidents Bicycle playing cards designed by Johnny Whaam, USA, 2015

1971 Into space and back

Into space and back

A NASA experiment to test a new inflammable material for playing cards.

1980 Collectors pack of Antiques

Collectors pack of Antiques

Collectors pack of Antiques playing cards published by Collectors Cards, Abertillery, South Wales, c...

1896 Chinese Money-Suited Playing Cards from the British Museum

Chinese Money-Suited Playing Cards from the British Museum

This deck of Chinese playing cards, donated to the British Museum in 1896, is believed to have been ...

2020 Bicycle Tragic Royalty

Bicycle Tragic Royalty

Modified courts rendered tragic and somewhat scary.

2018 Kings Wild Tigers Playing Cards

Kings Wild Tigers Playing Cards

Kings Wild Tigers is Jackson Robinson’s 27th successful playing card Kickstarter campaign. A luxury ...

2001 Rare Stamps of the World

Rare Stamps of the World

Fifty-five rare stamps of the world in full colour, published jointly by David Feldman SA of Switzer...

Luxury Collectable Playing Cards

Luxury Collectable Playing Cards

Luxury packs of cards have been produced since the 15th century, a trend that is very popular among ...

A. Camoin & Cie

A. Camoin & Cie

This deck was inherited from ancestors, it has has a family history surrounding it. Details of the l...

Why do we Collect?  My 20 Favourite Items

Why do we Collect? My 20 Favourite Items

I suppose people collect for different reasons, rarity, quality, ingenuity of design, sentimental va...

A Case Study

A Case Study

Case Study: using detective work to identify and date a pack discovered in charity shop.

Patience Cards and their Boxes

Patience Cards and their Boxes

Patience Cards and their Boxes by Tony Hall.

2018 Timothy Curtis Art

Timothy Curtis Art

Timothy Curtis Art custom Bicycle playing cards, 2018.

Collecting Playing Cards with Jan Walls

Collecting Playing Cards with Jan Walls

I collected playing cards when I was in primary school, by Jan Walls.

2018 Bicycle Knights

Bicycle Knights

Bicycle Knights playing cards designed by Sam Hayles in 2018.

69: My Collection

69: My Collection

This is an archive list of my collection. I hope it will be of use and interest to others.

Is Card Collecting an Investment?

Is Card Collecting an Investment?

“Is Card Collecting an Investment?” - an article by Rod Starling.

2019 Bicycle Cybertech

Bicycle Cybertech

Bicycle Cybertech playing cards inspired by cyberpunk genre, illustrated by Jamie Meza, 2019.

2017 Bicycle 808 Bourbon

Bicycle 808 Bourbon

Bicycle 808 Bourbon themed deck by US Playing Card Company 2017.