November 2017


It was a busy month. There were 2 major collectors fairs and there was only one week between them. So Joop had to get up early -not his favorite thing- twice on each occasion. Officially these bourses are on Saturday and Sunday, but both events have so-called build-up days on Friday and with a higher entrance fee they are open for visitors too. Although on these days about 80% of the stalls are filled, the extra fee is usually worth it, as you sort of have the first pick and that often brings some really good finds.
This time the first collectors fair in Nieuwegein brought us a Bézique box with 4 similar antique German decks, in their wrappers, that we would attribute to Maximilian Frommann and date as from around 1870. Joop also took along a large playing card press, used in bars to keep the decks in good, flat condition.
That was on the Friday. 

The second collectors fair was in the Jaarbeurs in Utrecht. Here Friday didn't bring any real good finds. However, on Saturday, around noon, Joop spotted an antique playing card box, with two similar, but very rare decks. Although worth every penny, the price wasn't cheap and was more than Joop's playing cards budget allowed at that moment. Fortunately a befriended playing card collector had a stall there and it was quickly decided to share this great find.

But besides these collectors fairs, there's always the internet and this month it brought us a couple of decks that would have qualified for this spot. Besides a deck of cigarette cards from around 1900 with 52 fine portraits of lovely ladies, we had received a delightful designed deck by Karl Späth, that was printed and published by the Spielkarten Vertrieb Heinrich Schwarz from Nürnberg, Germany, some time between 1940 and 1948. We had really thought that this would become our Deck of the Mont. However, halfway this month it was surpassed by far by our great find in Utrecht....... another and much older deck from Nürnberg (Nuremberg in English).

This time it was rather easy to tell the manufacturer. His name is on the Jack of Spades: Joh. Fried. Backofen. But identifying him was more difficult. When we started to do some research on him, it became clear that he was one of the descendants in a family full of playing card makers. The deck isn't in the Fournier catalogue, nor in that of the Gary collection. In the Braun catalogue (Band 9) about playing cards from Nürnberg we didn't find any pictures, but instead we found information about the 5 generations of Backofens, who have been active as manufacturers of playing cards.

It had all started with Johann Jodocus (Jobst) Backofen, who had gotten the title of master playing card maker by marrying the widow of the master playing card maker Gottfried Bleil from Nürnberg. The next generations are described in the Braun catalogue and the information was based on the book about the Backofen card makers family, as published by Sigmar Radau in 1997. We have contacted the author, hoping he could give some information about this deck or the maker, but Mr. Radau wasn't very cooperative and just wrote that we should buy his book. So here's a family tree until the fourth generation, with the active card makers, based on the information from the Braun catalogue. There has been a fifth generation, but it produced only one card manufacturer, Jobst Wilhelm Backofen. The names in dark blue indicate that these members of the Backofen family are not known to have been active as card makers.

Johann Jodocus (Jobst) Backofen
(1666 - 1730)

Andreas Bartholomäus Backofen (1663 - 1777)

Jonas Backhofen
(1694 - 1762)


Johan Friedrich Backofen
(± 1730 - ?)

Johann Matthäus Backofen
(1739 - 1815)

Johann Jobst Backofen
(±1745 - ?)


Johann Matthäus Backofen
(1766 - ?)

Johann Georg Heinrich Backofen (1768 - 1830)

Johann Georg Friedrich Backofen (1769 - 1834)

Johann Ernst Backofen
(1772 - 1844)
Johann Gottfried Backofen
(1773 - 1851)

Because the name Johann Friedrich Backofen is on the Jack of Spades our thoughts first went out to the third generation. However, there's very little known about him in respect to the manufacturing of playing cards. His interest was more in music, it seems. At this moment two German collectors, Klaus-Jürgen Schulz and Frieder Büchler, are working on a new book about the Backofen family as card makers. They had already made a family tree, but had added the part of the card on which the name of the manufacturer is mentioned to each name. They kindly permitted us to use one of these images for this article. It's possible that each of the Backofens had his own way of presenting their name, but it's more likely that the way in which the shield is designed is part of the pattern. However, we found a similarity in the shield that Johann Georg Friedrich Backofen (4th generation) had used to present his name in a deck with the same pattern, but with text on KC ("à Nuremberg") and JS (see below) in French.

The shield on the right is attributed by Büchler & Schultz to Johann Georg Backofen.
Although the text is in French, here too the maker didn't mention his second name Georg and only mentions the French version of Johann Friedrich. So it's likely that our deck was also made by this Johann Georg Friedrich Backofen.

Now that we have probably identified the correct maker within the Backofen family, what is known about him? Awaiting the new book by Schulz & Büchler, we have to turn to the Braun catalogue again: Johann Georg Friedrich was the third son of Johann Matthäus Backofen. He was born in 1769 and lived in the Weisgerber Gasse in Nürnberg. He worked there as card maker until he sold his card manufactory to Christian Heinrich Reuter in 1817. The reason for this is unknown. He became a manufacturer and dealer of quills, moved first to Fürth and later to Erlangen. He had already resumed the manufacturing of playing cards in Erlangen and in 1822 he returned to Nürnberg as a playing card manufacturer. However without having the license for that. It ultimately led to his brother submitting a declaration of tax evasion against him. Apparently it went even further down hill for him and after losing his entire fortune he died in poverty in 1834.

The deck has plain aces.

What else can the cards tell us. Well, we learned about a pattern of which we had never heard before.

The pattern on the courts is derived from the Paris pattern. This deck has the same pattern as a pattern, of which examples by different manufacturers are known from around 1750 on and that has been described as the "Churbaierisch" pattern. That term is used in references to the Kurfürstendom Bayern (Electorate of Bavaria) of the Holy Roman Empire, which had existed since 1623. Nürnberg itself has been an Imperial city (independent city-state) within the Holy Roman Empire since the 13th century. In the second half of the 18th century the city of Nürnberg was confronted with a large debt due to war contributions and asked to be part of Prussia, which was denied. A few years later, under the influence of Napoleon, the Treaty of the Confederation of the Rhine in 1806 was signed and Nürnberg remained a free city, but within the Kingdom of Bavaria. Within a few months after the signing of this treaty the Holy Roman Empire ceased to exist.

The King of Clubs holds a sort of shield that shows the three components of the coat of arms of the Electorate of Bavaria: the lion, the checkered field and the Imperial Orb of the Holy Roman Empire. We believe that this is a reference to indicate that the deck has the "Churbaierisch" pattern. Because the reference still has the components of the Electorate of Bavaria's shield, we believe that the deck was made before Bavaria became a kingdom and would date it as c1800, maybe a bit earlier.

There are a few other interesting details. All the jacks hold a shield. On the JS that's used to put the maker's name, but the other shields show a star, a sun and a crescent moon. I'm not sure if their presence is meant in an astronomical (or even astrological) sense or if they are somehow connected with their suit. In the Spades and Diamond suit the kings have a sort of turban as headwear. They have the looks of a ruler from the (Turkish) Ottoman empire and the crescent moon is an old symbol in their culture. The Ottoman Empire was at it largest in the 17th century and roughly reached from Budapest to Mecca and from Algiers to Bagdad.


We can without any doubt say that this deck has been our best find in many years. Not only because of its age, but mainly because it seems that this version of the churbaierisch pattern by a Backofen wasn't known yet.

We have made scans at 300 dpi of 3 cards and you can click on the KD, QC and JS. They will open a new window and show an enlarged image of the card.
The deck consists of 52 cards. The courts seem to be copper engraved and were stencil coloured.