Rare Collection of Playing Cards Donated to Columbia University Libraries

NEW YORK, December 31, 2003 - The Rare Book and Manuscript Library has received a collection of playing cards from the late Albert Field, former authenticator of Salvador Dali’s artwork. A selection of the cards will be on display as part of the Our Growing Collection: New Acquisitions exhibition from January 20, 2004 through February 27, 2004.  The exhibition is open to the Columbia community and the general public, in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library, located on the sixth floor of Butler Library.

An online gallery of images is available here.

The collection, described by the donor as possibly the largest and most comprehensive collection of playing cards in the world, consists of close to 6,000 packs. Included in the collection are tarot packs; miniature packs; packs depicting generals, presidents, and sports figures; and transformation packs, where suit signs change into human heads, butterflies, bees, birds, or fish. The collection also contains depictions of great historic significance, representing changes in social customs, political context, and design. A sequence of packs from early 20th-century Russia, for example, shows increasingly vicious images of the imperial court. Decks from the early modern period include one from late 16th-century England, portraying the defeat of the Spanish Armada, and another, from slightly later, tells the story of the Guy Fawkes plot to blow up the houses of Parliament.

Jean Ashton, Director of the Rare Book and Manuscript Library, in announcing the gift of the collection to the library, said, “The cards provide an interesting adjunct to the Library’s strong collections in early typography and design, and they will be useful for the study of graphic design, popular iconography, printing techniques, education, theology, and a variety of other subjects.”

Albert Field, who performed as a magician during his early years, incorporated card tricks into his magic acts, and collected cards from the countries he toured. Field received a B.A. in English Literature from Columbia University, and a M.A. from Harvard, and then taught English and science in New York City high schools. Field first met Salvador Dali in the early 1940s, and was chosen by the artist to be his official archivist in 1955. Field proceeded to catalog thousands of Dali works and fakes, eventually becoming the foremost authority in the field.

The Rare Book and Manuscript Library owns over 600,000 rare books in some 20 book collections and almost 26 million manuscripts in nearly 2,600 separate manuscript collections. It is particularly strong in English and American literature and history, classical authors, children's literature, education, mathematics and astronomy, economics and banking, photography, the history of printing, New York City politics, librarianship, and the performing arts. Individual collections are as eclectic as they are extensive.  The Rare Book and Manuscript Library is closed for renovation and will reopen on Tuesday, January 20, 2004. For additional information on services during renovation, please contact the Rare Book and Manuscript Library, 212-854-5590.

For information contact:

Communications Coordinator