A French custom brought to New Orleans shortly after the city was founded, the annual Carnival season begins on January 6 (King’s Day or the Feast of the Epiphany) and ends on Shrove Tuesday (Fat Tuesday) with Mardi Gras.
At last count, more than 50 parades and festivities hosted by Krewes fill the 47 days between the Feast of the Epiphany and Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Lenten season.
Mementoes of the carnival season – from beads and baubles to stuffed animals – are as collectible as they are fun. The most sought after – and often the most valuable – vintage keepsakes are the Mardi Gras ball invitations from decades passed. Remarkable examples of design and die-cut lithography, the pre-1900 invitations, dance cards and programs were printed in France and featured as many as 16 folds.
Many of the carnival clubs, known as Krewes, who plan the parades and balls are private, non-profit organizations named after figures from Greek, Roman and Egyptian mythology. Though they plan their parades and invitation-only balls year-round, the details are not disclosed until the day of the event.
First Krewe formed in 1857
The first Krewe, the Mistick Krewe of Comus, was officially formed in 1857. It established many of the Krewe traditions still followed today, including masked balls, elaborate costumes and themed parades. Other early Krewes include, but are not limited to, the Twelfth Night Revelers (1870), who kick off the Carnival season with an invitation-only ball on King’s Day; Knights of Momus (1872); Krewe of Proteus (1882); the Krewe of Nereus (1897); Krewe of Zulu (1909); and Krewe of Iris (1917), the oldest and the largest all-female Carnival crew in New Orleans.
What the Mardi Gras colors mean
In 1892, Rex, the King of Carnival, designated the official Mardi Gras colors: purple for justice, green for faith and gold for power. These colors are often incorporated in the elaborately executed ball invitations and dance cards.
According to Henri Schindler, in the book “Mardi Gras Treasures: Invitations of the Golden Age,” the invitations of the Golden Age of Carnival (1870-1930) “were as lushly executed as the balls and pageants themselves. Ball invitations, dance cards and admit cards reflected exalted themes drawn from mythology, epic literature, religion and whimsy.”
The Mardi Gras ball tradition
Invitations were – and still are – printed in very limited quantities, making them more appealing to collectors. And the designs and names of the court are closely guarded secrets. Collector extraordinaire Arthur Hardy has more than 5,000 pieces in his Mardi Gras collection. A fifth generation New Orleanian, Hardy publishes the popular “Arthur Hardy’s Mardi Gras Guide” (www.mardigrasguide.com) and is recognized as a top authority on the New Orleans Mardi Gras. “We take our traditions of secrecy very seriously in New Orleans,” he says.
Collecting these masterfully designed and produced invitations is a way to capture the mystique and frivolity of the Carnival to be enjoyed year-round, though prime 19th and early 20th century examples can be quite pricey; recent auction results show examples selling from just more than $100 to well in excess of $1,000. Having the advantage of a ground-zero Mardi Gras location, local New Orleans auction houses sell many prime examples each year.
Value of Mardi Gras ball invitations
When asked about what makes for a valuable invitation, Adam Lambert of Crescent City Auction Galleries says, “The most desirable invitations and bulletins are usually the earliest ones from old line Krewes (i.e. Rex, Proteus, Momus and Comus).”
Katherine Hovas, senior vice president at Neal Auction Company, confirms, “The most desirable invitations are from the Golden Age of Carnival, 1870s to 1890s, and as late as the 1920s. Those Krewes include Comus, Rex, Proteus and Momus.”
Hovas says “The values are generally all over the page: $200 to $400/$500 to $700/$1,000 to $1,800 and sometimes $2,000-plus.”
Completeness and rarity
When it comes to determining value, Hovas explains, “Condition is important. They are, after all, made of paper.”
She continues, “Completeness also affects value: Are the foldouts intact? Do you have the admit card? Dance card and pencil? Envelope? Any of these factors could affect the value.”
Lambert adds, “There are some invitations that are rare because the ball dates were moved or postponed because of wars or in one case, ‘Reconstruction’ after the Civil War. The highest priced one we have ever sold was a very early Comus invite and program.” The early Comus invite and program, dating to 1874, earned $2,200 in the firm’s October 26-27, 2013, event. (Exclusive of buyer’s premium.)
According to Hovas, Neal Auction’s record price for a Mardi Gras invitation is $5,497 (with buyer’s premium) for a Rex 1875 invitation and admit card marked “Postponed to February 29, 1876.” (Mardi Gras was postponed that year due to Reconstruction tensions.)
Advice for new collectors
For entry-level collectors, Lambert advises the newer Mardi Gras invitations are much cheaper and are more available. He explains, “Invitations from the 1930s to the present can be found and acquired easier than the pre-1900s ones. With the Scheffler collection that we are selling, he bought most of the pre-1900 ones in the 1940s, when they were only 50-plus years old for mere dollars. Seventy years later, his collection has already brought over six figures at auction.”
When asked about what advice he would give collectors who are considering delving in to Mardi Gras ephemera, Arthur Hardy says, “If you’re jumping in now, you better have deep pockets. The most wonderful are the most expensive.”
Hardy explains that invitations that were selling for $50 in the 1980s are now going for $2,500. One big factor is that the damage and destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina has made collections more scarce. So now, even if you have the money to spend, finding the treasures is the issue. But “sometimes you get lucky.”
Hardy adds that pre-1900 invitations are the really prime examples of design and lithography. “After World War I there was a real downturn in the intricacy and quality.”
The future of the Mardi Gras ball
However, Hardy says recently there have been attempts to return to the old styles. But they aren’t of the same quality as the early ones. “Krewe of Rex [www.rexorganization.com] and Krewe of Hermes [established 1937] have both gone back to die cut.”
On finding Mardi Gras material, he says he often has better luck outside of New Orleans. But “eBay is still a wonderful resource.”
Mardi Gras is a social and cultural phenomenon. Whether acquiring pre-1900 invitations or later examples, collectors are assured that this area of ephemera collecting begins and ends with memorable celebrations.
This article was originally published in the Feb. 19, 2014 edition of Antique Trader magazine. Copyright F+W Media. All rights reserved.
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