When people learn that I have amassed over two hundred tarot decks in my sixty years on this planet, their first inclination is to want to see my collection. Someone said my tarot parlor was like a tarot museum, and that's how I've come to view my passion for collecting the cards. I'm not a deck hoarder, I'm a serious art collector and my collection spans nearly 600 years of tarot art.
In my very first tarot blog, I wrote that as an artist, I had been drawn to the cards for their beauty and mystery. They represent history and human experience. Of course, once I began to learn about the cards, I began reading them and for want of a better description, I became a tarot reader. I've been reading and collecting tarot for forty-three or forty-four years. I'm not exactly sure if it all began in 1975 or '76.
The first deck I ever owned was the first deck that ever appeared on US television in 1968, and that was the 1JJ Swiss Tarot deck as it was featured on an episode of the Gothic, after-school soap opera, Dark Shadows. I was only ten years old when it might be said that I was seduced by their mystery and beauty. (You can read more about that Dark Shadows episode here, and here, but I digress...)
It wasn't until 1975 or '76 however, that I was able to track down a deck for purchase at a Spain's novelty gift shop at our local mall. I remember picking it up and holding it in my hands for the first time. Omg, it was thrilling! Of course in those days, there was no online library to peruse the cards before purchase, but based on my memory of the cards I had seen on Dark Shadows, and the box art, I was all in. I also purchased the accompanying book that came with it and I knew it would be a lifelong interest. Even all these years later, whenever I use my first deck, I am always drawn back into those original feelings of awe.
One of my high school girl friends had either been been given or bought a deck of tarot cards too, but hers were different than mine. Her deck was a Rider Waite Smith deck. Perusing her deck, I soon came to realize that not all tarot cards were the same. In fact, our two decks were strikingly dissimilar in several ways. For one, all the cards in her deck were illustrated and not just decorative, and in the trump cards, a few cards were renamed, most notably the Juno and Jupiter cards from my deck were replaced by the High Priestess and Hierophant in her deck. (I later learned that Juno and Jupiter were themselves replacements for the Pappess and Pope, and you can read about the history of that here. When I finally found a copy of the Waite Smith collaboration, it was actually a print of Albano Waite Smith, not a Rider Waite Smith, and so I further realized that there were many variations on the tarot theme.
These discoveries might seem obvious looking through today's lens, but back in the 70s, at least in the states, tarot decks were anything but main stream. In fact, I had kept it from my own family that I had even bought a tarot deck. But slowly, after Dark Shadows aired its appearance in 1968, they aired another episode in 1971 this time with with the RWS deck, and then in 1973 a tarot deck appeared in a James Bond Film, Live and Let Die. That deck was altogether different, created exclusively for the film by artist Fergus Hall.
When I entered art school in 1976, I took art history courses every semester for four years, hoping that a deck of tarot cards would surface in the curriculum, but they never had. From my earliest experience, tarot and art history went hand in hand. My fantasy job would be to teach an art history course through the art pictured on a tarot deck, but alas, I only have a BFA degree and not enough scholastic credentials to be a college professor. Still, my studio art and art history backgrounds have prompted me to be a passionate and lifelong learner of the subject despite my lack of interest in accruing further college tuition debt. My interest in art history branched off in an unusual direction, keenly fine-tuned to experience history, human nature, and psychology through the lens of the art on a tarot deck.
One glorious day in NY, in the early 1980s after graduating from art school, I spotted a few ancient cards from a deck called Visconti Sforza, and I was determined to own a copy. It wasn't until 1995 I think, that Lo Scarabeo finally published it, and it was a pretty wonderful day when I found it in a book store. OMG! It was embellished with gold, and was the prettiest deck I had ever seen. I was in absolute awe of it, for giving me a glimpse into the oldest tarot deck known to exist, and a glimpse into the world of Medieval and Renaissance Italian and European politics. Understanding tarot history has made me a much better reader. When I read, I see hundreds of years of human experience appear before my eyes.
Most of the few decks I had accumulated up to 1995 were pip styled decks, without illustrated scenes on the numbered suit cards, but slowly and surely more and more tarot decks were available every time I went to the book store, and I went all the time, mainly to see what new decks were available. It wasn't that I was looking for my perfect deck, it's that I loved to see how each deck interpreted the tarot entourage.
As we approached the year 2000, tarot decks were becoming commonplace in bookstores, and then the year 2000, like a magic number, was a lottery year for millennium decks. In the early 1990s I told myself that I would create a tarot deck by the year 2000, and although that never happened, I did create three children instead.
I don't think the tarot world misses my contribution though, the tarot market is if anything, over saturated with people like me who had the same idea to create a tarot deck and I'm glad I hadn't created one because I believe my tarot contribution has yet to come.
I have narrowed my scope of interest as any art collector would, to focus on the art that appeals to me most. I currently limit my purchase of modern decks, though I have dozens, and dozens, and dozens of them. In recent years, an appreciation for historic decks has lead to more of them being printed, and my tastes and interests have been fine-tuned to focus on the historic recreations.
The historic decks, in my opinion, are the best decks to hit the tarot market, because aside from their genuinity, (is that a word?) and astounding beauty, they allow us to witness just how widespread the game of Tarocchi was and how each region interpreted, reinterpreted, and adjusted their understanding of the prototypes established by the Italians. These early decks fascinate me the most, especially the Italian decks, but the Flemish and 16th and 17th century Tarot de Marseille tarot decks also bear witness to a fascinating history and lead one down yet another rabbit hole. Heck, even the twist and turns that Etteilla and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn took us down, show fascinating aspects of the human experience and need for understanding the secrets of the universe.
Since the 1995 Lo Scarabeo publication, the Visconti decks have been incarnated a number of times, the most recent and I believe best, being the Visconti Modrone deck by Lo Scarabeo in 2019, which is a magnificent effort, bringing to life what those earliest cards may have looked like. The way I gazed upon the 1JJ Swiss deck in awe back in 1968 and then in '75 or '76 when I finally tracked it down, most certainly pales in comparison to the awe that the hand-painted Visconti decks must have struck in their owners.
In addition to the Visconti decks, there are so many gorgeous Italian decks, like the pictured Estensi, the Sola Busca (which had its own agenda and departed greatly from the established tarot milieu of its day), the Vergnano Tarot, the Perrin Tarot, The Tarocchi Dalla Torre, and Giacomo Zoni, all the Minchiate decks, the Vacchetta, Soprafino, and others. There are other gorgeous historic decks outside of Italy, like the Vandenborre and Besancon decks, all of which lead us down another historic path.
When people on tarot forums poo-poo people like me, as just another hoarder who collect out of an illness, or don't see the point of owning more than one deck to read tarot, they miss the point entirely. I collect art and the history of at least the western world, and the secrets of humanity.