Thoughts on the auction of "Historic Cards and Games
from the Collection of Stuart R. and Marilyn Kaplan"



For several years, Stuart R. Kaplan has declared publicly that he did not intend to donate his huge collection of playing and tarot decks etc. to any museum, institute or university, where the items were stored away and only with difficulty would be accessible to the public. He rather wanted the items circulated to new collectors, who could enjoy and care for them. I did not entirely agree with this intention, since I considered that the real value of a collection of this size, was not in the single objects only, but in the degree of near-completeness. A completeness, it had reached due to the creator's year long enthusiasm, efforts and expenditures. We have, however, lately seen the problem in donating a collection to an institution actualized with the United States Playing Card Company's collection, which can't find a home, unless it is accompanied with a large sum of money to pay for its future preservation. Public money for cultural activities is sparse in these days, so we have to get rid of our collections in other ways..

Now Mr. Kaplan is circulating the decks, which were the backbone of his collection. He has actually done that for a while. The recent auction was not the first and for a period, a number of decks were also offered for sale on e-bay. What used to be one of the world's largest collections of tarot decks - maybe the largest - is no longer and can never be recreated. What is left for posterity are Mr. Kaplan's four volumes "Encyclopedia of Tarot", a couple of other books and catalogues and now also the large 300 pages elaborate colour illustrated catalogue from the recent auction at Christie's which, I believe, was sent free to all IPCS-members.

I see a problem with large auctions like this. How many collectors are there who, for example, at the same time want to buy - and have the means for it - a Napoleonic War Bone Box for a price of 2-3000$ or more? Out of the 20 listed items of this sort, only nine were sold. It could be interesting to know who the buyers were; not their names but their nationality and whether they were an institution or a private collector. I am, however, afraid that this is a secret reserved for the auction house and, maybe, Mr. Kaplan himself. Out of the 480 lots, 291 were sold. 124 of them for less than the minimum valuation. About 150 lots were tarot and cartomantic decks. About 50 of these being French suited tarots (22 sold); the other 100 being Italian suited decks, esoteric packs and cartomantic decks. About 50% of this group was sold. The rest of the sale was literature, playing cards, games and implements, like boxes and trump indicators (!)

All this leaves 189 items from the auction still in Mr. Kaplan's possession. The auction took, of course, the top pieces away; the unsold items will likely be a lot more difficult to circulate, unless they are offered for prices considerable lower than the catalogue valution. The sold items came to US$ 412.000 totally. From this amount, the cost of the auction house has to be deducted. Buyers premium of 20% and whatever else costs there may be, reducing Mr. Kaplan's proceeds to $300.000-350.000. Is this a satisfying amount for Mr. Kaplan? For this amount, you have to be lucky to buy a two- or three room apartment in a small Danish town (50.000 inhabitants), like where I live. The growing interest for esoteric tarot has created a new and different group of tarot collectors; mainly American women, who for a period are collecting very actively and who are willing to pay high prices for what they feel is needed in their collection. In many cases it is, however, a passing passion; after a couple of years they loose interest, a new husband is found or a grandchild is born. The collection is sold again for less what what they paid for it, or simply given away.

Whether we like it or not, serious collectors are a declining race. Not only playing card collectors, but all sorts of collectors. Young people live their lives through their computers and mobile phones; they live in small apartments, which do not allow space for even a modest collection, and it is rather unlikely that they later turn to collecting, unless considerable cultural and social upheavals happens in the future. The present collectors are growing old, they do no longer add to their collection and many of them want to dispose of it. But who are the buyers?

K. Frank Jensen,
August 2006