Four-Century-Old Playing Cards Unveil Royal Secret

Made of gold and silver, the cards are believed to have belonged to royalty

By on November 30th, 2012 07:44 GMT

A whole suite of playing cards dated 400 years ago and comprising 52 silver objects has been discovered.

The exquisite game tools were first revealed to the public in 2012, when an anonymous owner put them up for auction at the Christie auction house, in New York, Live Science reports.

The cards were made at around 1616 in Germany by an engraver called Michael Frömmer and are believed to have been the property of a Portuguese princess.

In the XVII century, when the cards are dated, there was no universal standard for playing cards as there is now. Different creation styles were known, according to the region they were coming from.

“Silver cards were exceptional,” says Timothy Schroder, an expert in gold and silver decorative arts, analyzing the card set.

“Renaissance and Baroque Silver, Mounted Porcelain and Ruby Glass from the Zilkha Collection...They were not made for playing with but as works of art for the collector's cabinet, or Kunstkammer,” he went on describing.

“[O]nly five sets of silver cards are known today and of these only one — the Zilkha set — is complete.”

The set was created in the Italian style, comprising cards from ace to ten, including three face cards: king, knight and knave.

While two of the kings were pictured dressed in Roman clothing, one of them appears as a Holy Roman Emperor and the other as a Sultan, the knights and knaves were illustrated wearing contemporary Renaissance clothes, from the military or the courtly area.

Experts say that the creation process of these rare cards was not an easy one, given both the complex decoration and the dangerous technique. Workers used mercury for the cards' embellishment, a substance that can easily become fatal.

“You ground up gold into kind of a dust, and you mix it with mercury, and you painted that onto the surface where you wished the gilding to appear,” Schroder explained.

“I don't think they quite understood why it was dangerous, but they did appreciate the dangers of it,” he added.

Even if the original possessor of the almost art-work remains unknown, there are suppositions that they initially belonged to a Spanish king's daughter, Infanta Carlota Joaquina married to a Portugal prince. She might have offered them as a gift to the wife of Felipe Contucci, for the latter's help in some difficult situations.

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