NEW YORK -- The collection spans 50 countries and four centuries and touches on subjects ranging from beer marketing to 19th-century Portuguese politics.
Columbia University has a collection of playing cards that is among the world's largest, a trove of 6,356 decks that the Ivy League institution painstakingly catalogued this spring after they were donated to the school by an eccentric collector.
Ranging from simple woodblock prints from 1550s Austria to a 1963 American pack with admiring caricatures of the Kennedy family, the collection isn't just a novelty, but a rich, if offbeat, resource for research. Scholars say cards can be useful records of social history, depicting how cultural touchstones, political figures and historical events were seen in their times.
"They're kind of wacky and different for us," said Columbia rare-book librarian Jane Rodgers Siegel, but "once you actually start looking at the cards, they're just fascinating."
The collection is a significant addition to playing-card repositories held by libraries, museums and other institutions around the world. London's Guildhall Library has a similar-sized collection, curator John Fisher said; some other institutions boast as many as 10,000 decks, according to the International Playing-Cards Society, a group of collectors and enthusiasts.
The earliest European references to playing cards date to the 1300s, though a dominolike form emerged earlier in China.
Besides fueling countless parlor games and wagers, cards have served as souvenirs, erotica, satire, fortunetelling tools, advertising for everything from airlines to suspenders and educational primers. A 1677 English pack in Columbia's collection is crammed with facts about places from China to Florida.
Cards also have trumpeted propaganda -- Columbia's holdings include a World War I-era German deck sketching such scenes as "Zeppelin Uber England," for instance. More recently, cards have been used to try to solve crimes, on "cold case" packs distributed to prison inmates in hopes of eliciting tips.
Columbia's collection was the result of a bequest from a man almost as colorful as his cards: schoolteacher, author, mountain climber, nudist and Salvador Dali archivist Albert Field, who died in 2003.
For Field, cards were part of a ravenous appetite for collecting that extended to transit tokens and bus transfers, said Frank Hunter, a longtime friend and partner in Field's work as an authenticator of Dali's prints.
Field's interests ranged from hiking -- he traversed a good deal of the Appalachian Trail, and in the nude, no less -- to mystery novels, Hunter said. Field believed he had solved a legendary literary whodunit, Charles Dickens' unfinished "The Mystery of Edwin Drood," and was trying to get his analysis published when he died at 86, according to his friend.
A Columbia graduate who taught English and science in New York City schools, "he liked the idea of scholarly pursuits, using your mind, and that's what he did most of his life," said Hunter, who continues Field's work as director of the Salvador Dali Archives in New York.
Field struck up an acquaintance with Dali after being captivated by his art. After Field asked Dali whether anyone was tracking his growing output of lithographs and other prints, the surrealist invited Field to do so in the 1950s, said Joan Kropf, deputy director of the Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, Fla.
Field published an official catalog of Dali's prints in 1996 and became a sought-after authority on Dali fakes, serving as an expert in more than a dozen art-fraud cases. Some art dealers and lawyers complained that he lacked formal training in art or appraising, but others defended his self-taught knowledge.
Field started amassing playing cards because they were the only mementos he could find on a post-World War II trip to ravaged Europe, Hunter said.
Over time, packs and mounted sheets of cards came to fill cabinets and shelves in Field's Queens home. He pored over water marks, printing techniques, tax stamps and other details to date his acquisitions, logging the particulars on special index cards. Sometimes, he would even skip meals to buy coveted decks, said Yasha Beresiner, a London playing cards dealer who visited Field in New York. His collection's value is now estimated at more than $1 million, Siegel said.
Field ultimately wrote a 1987 book on what are known as transformation decks, which incorporate suit symbols into elaborate designs, perhaps concealing a club in the shape of a bonnet or a heart in a face. His bequest to Columbia includes about 80 such decks.
Columbia librarians, eager to see Field's cards put to scholarly use, plan to visit university classes to let students know about them, Siegel said.