NEW YORK, Jan. 9 (UPI) -- Those sets of playing cards picturing Iraq's "most wanted" officials of the Saddam Hussein regime have begun to find their way into museum playing card collections as the most wanted cards of the year.
Now that an authentic Liberty Playing Card Company pack of the government-issue cards has been acquired by no less than the British Museum in London, the price of decks available on eBay and at souvenir shops are likely to rise. The top current price on the Internet, without proof of authenticity, is about $300.
It all started when current the U.S. military issued a deck of 52 playing-card size cards last April bearing the faces of Saddam as the king of spades, his Cabinet, his top military officers, and other members of the Iraqi ruling entourage. The first edition of 200 decks was produced by the Defense Intelligence Agency for distribution to U.S. troops to aid them in searching out the enemy for arrest.
The jokers of this first edition erroneously carried the "Hoyle" trademark of the United States Playing Card Company, although the firm was not involved in its printing. These cards are now the most sought after by collectors, although the chance of getting a full set of 52 is a long shot, according to dealers in ephemera contacted in New York.
The next printing of thousands of decks of cards was made by the Liberty Playing Card Company, a Virginia firm contracted by the DIA. They were distributed throughout the Arabian Gulf area and often were used for poker games, but many have been kept by servicemen and -women as souvenirs of their assignments to the Middle East and probably will be handed down as family treasures.
Taking advantage of the value of the cards as collectibles, both the United States and Liberty Playing Card Company have produced "casino quality" sets for the home market, many of which have found their way into the hands of street vendors in Manhattan where they are generally priced at $5 or $6.
Not to be left out of the market, firms in China and England also have printed decks of the cards in recent months that undersell America-made decks by a dollar or two.
It was one of the Chinese-produced decks that was first acquired by the British Museum, which has a collection of more than 1,000 historic packs of playing cards, many of them produced before 1900. Museum curator Martin Royalton-Kisch told an English reporter the museum was pleased with the pack, received as a gift, until it found "made in China" stamped on the back of the packet.
"Ideally, we would like to acquire one of the sets which were officially distributed in the Gulf," Royalton-Kisch was quoted. "Those sets were the authentic ones."
However, Kisch was unable to track down one of the original 200 decks and the British Museum has had to make do with one of the Liberty card packs he bought on the Internet for $10.
"It's better than nothing," he said.
A spokesman for the Metropolitan Museum in New York, whose most famous card collection consists of baseball cards printed at the turn of the last century, said it would be interested in acquiring a pack of the Iraqi "most wanted" cards, but has not yet done so.
Sotheby's and Christie's auction houses reported that they had not yet received any of the packs for sale to collectors although they expected to in the near future. Specialists at both firms estimated that the price of one of the original 200 decks in good condition would probably be in the thousands of dollars, possibly $10,000.