Collectors Never 'Cease to Love'
Serious souvenir hunters can dress their own stage and celebrate Mardi Gras every day of the year.
1892 Krewe of Rex invitation
ELENA RICCI Photographs
Maybe it’s something in the genes,” mused a confirmed Carnival collector. He might have started with baseball cards, but it was the beauty of antique krewe favors kept in his own family that captured him.
Serious acquirers of Mardi Gras memorabilia are a dedicated group and their collections can be monumental. They might prowl auctions, eBay, flea markets, estate and garage sales. Competition for items can get heated. Only recently have the old-line krewes begun seriously collecting their own items, and the Louisiana State Museum’s collection is impressive. (Occasionally collectors and families put things on loan there for special exhibits.)
However, prices can vary. After museums and serious collectors all own an item, the next time it comes up it will have a lower price. This can benefit the casual buyer.
Doubloons were once a popular collectible. Today, according to Sidney Lambert of Crescent City Auction Gallery, “There’s not really a market for doubloons. The sterling doubloons still sell, but part of that is the value of silver now. And, of course, there are gold ones that surface from time to time.”
1892 Krewe of Comus invitation
Crescent City Auction Gallery has recently been auctioning items from the estate of Mardi Gras costume designer and collector John Scheffler. Ball invitations, dance cards, even some royal jewelry, including crowns and scepters, have been going up for bids, with the final session scheduled for this month. The most valuable item Lambert has seen recently? “A ducal badge went for $3,750,” he says.
Ducal badges – ornamental pins given to members of the krewe each year, with the design changing – are a popular collectible. Rex ducal badges are prized. In paper items, the invitations and dance cards from the early years are especially lovely. Some were printed in Paris. A Carnival bulletin is a picture of the design of all the floats in a parade. (To view one for Rex, check RexOrganization.com.) Long ago, the bulletins were put into the newspaper – as one krewe member recalls, “My father paid five cents for one of those.” Today they attract a higher price. All original artwork associated with the production of balls or parades is much prized.
Indispensable to collectors, and to anyone with an interest in either art or Carnival, are author Henri Schindler’s four books in his “Mardi Gras Treasures” series published by Pelican Publishing Company: Jewelry of the Golden Age, Invitations of the Golden Age, Float Designs of the Golden Age and Costume Designs of the Golden Age.
1897 Krewe of Proteus invitation
Schindler himself began collecting in 1964 when he moved to the French Quarter. While searching for objects, he met Juanita Elfret who had a shop on St. Peter Street just off Royal Street. Elfret introduced Schindler to Louis Fisher – a female artist and a designer for Carnival balls and parades, such as Comus and Proteus, for 40 years. (Fisher’s also profiled in John Shelton Reed’s Dixie Bohemia: A French Quarter Circle in the 1920’s from LSU Press.)
“She allowed me to carry her groceries home from the A&P and that was my introduction,” Schindler explains. “I started doing research and leg work for Louis, and I learned a lot. She made the crucial introductions.” Today, Schindler himself is a renowned designer of parades and balls.
Another collector, architect Robbie Cangelosi, has designed the Bacchus invitation, and is an active member of that krewe.
His own extensive collection began with paper. “I like the artwork on the invitations,” he says. His first non-paper object was an Elves of Oberon pin. Now his hoard includes scepters, crowns, costumes, sometimes with the drawings by the designer, so “you can compare the artwork to the actual piece.”
Hurricane Katrina caused damage to items stored on Cangelosi’s first floor; some he salvaged, some he discarded and others he still keeps. “I have boxes marked ‘Destroyed By Katrina,’” he says.
Ted Anthony can understand the importance of an object: “When you hold something in your hand that’s 140 years old, it means something, it’s part of history,” he says. His real start on Carnival collecting came after attending the Rex ball a dozen years ago, and he focuses on items created before 1917. “It was the golden age of Carnival, everything about it: the costumes, the jewelry – all very ornate, very captivating.”
In one fortunate acquisition, “I was up in North Louisiana and stumbled across an antique shop that had some krewe favor pins,” he recalls. He advises beginners to focus: “Decide what you’re going for, and do research on costs. The older the invitation, the smaller the quantity and the higher the value.”
Herbie Leblanc, president of the Mardi Gras Memorabilia Society (occasionally referred to as the Mardi Gras Mafia) admits, “I just didn’t really know what I was getting into,” when he began with some small silver-plated pieces from the Krewe of Zeus in the 1980s. Today his massive accumulation puts him in the forefront of serious collectors. Nowadays, “I rarely sell, I’d rather trade.”
He has almost a full run of Rex ducal badges, lacking only seven from before 1900 and those of the last two years. His collection includes crowns, scepters and court jewelry. However, when he reigned himself as King of the Krewe of Centurions, he “had a crown custom-made in Mobile. Inside it has KC, my initials, the date and a little cat charm – I had evacuated from Hurricane Gustav with the cat with me when I got to Mobile.”
Now, that’s an item some collector in the future is going to puzzle over.
Be a Collector
Start your own collection at the Rex Organization’s website: RexOrganization.com. Click on “merchandise” to find vendors for a copy of the year’s Mardi Gras proclamation. Rex collects, too. According to Rex archivist Dr. Stephen Hales, the krewe’s den contains exhibits and mementoes telling Rex history, and “our Crescent City Carnival Museum Foundation can accept tax-deductible donations of krewe items.” Outside groups occasionally visit. “Every year we invite Teach for America volunteers, grant-recipients from our Pro Bono Publico foundation, members of the Friends of the Cabildo, Friends of WYES-TV and Sugar Bowl officials and teams.””