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British Museum buys Iraq “most wanted” cards
Curator hopes to acquire eventually a pack actually distributed to soldiers

The British Museum has acquired a set of the playing cards showing Saddam Hussein, his entire cabinet, chiefs of staff and an assortment of other Iraqis on the US “most wanted list”. The cards were issued to US troops in Iraq to help them identify the enemy.

The first pack of Iraqi playing cards acquired by the museum’s Prints and Drawings Department turned out to be a fake—the prominent “Made in China” stamped on the back of the packet was a giveaway. The pack was a modest gift from a friend of the department, which also collects ephemera. This prompted museum curator, Martin Royalton-Kisch, to search for an authentic set to add to the museum’s collection of historic playing cards—which numbers well over 1,000 sets, mostly pre-1900. On the internet, he bought a pack produced by the Liberty Playing Card Company, costing a mere $10. Even this, however, is not quite the real thing, as The Art Newspaper discovered when we set out to investigate the esoteric world of the “most wanted” cards.

It all began on 11 April, when the US military announced that the 52 “most wanted” Iraqis were being featured on a set of cards for the troops, with Saddam Hussein as the Ace of Spades. The first batch of 200 packs was produced by the Defence Intelligence Agency, but inadvertently the two jokers carried the “Hoyle” trademark of the United States Playing Card Company, which was not involved. The military then ordered a much larger print run from a rival firm, the Liberty Playing Card Company in Virginia. These went out in their thousands to the Gulf, where bored servicemen and women played poker while awaiting action.

Both the Liberty and United States card companies quickly cashed in by producing similar “casino quality” packs for the home market—each claiming to be “authentic”. These have proved a bonanza, and the United States Playing Card Company has voluntarily contributed $100,000 to charity from these sales. In recent weeks, others have jumped on the bandwagon including firms in China and Britain. Prices are falling and now start at $4 for foreign-produced cards and $6 for those from the two major American producers. However, the really keen collectors are scrabbling to get the originals which were given to the troops. “Ideally, we would like to acquire one of the sets which were officially distributed in the Gulf,” explained Mr Royalton-Kisch.

At this time, several packs were for sale on eBay; the most expensive was going for $300, with no proof it was authentic.