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Unique set?




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Tens of thousands of sets of gaming counters came to Europe and to the States from Canton and the vast majority conformed to a set pattern: three shapes of counters corresponding to three different values in play and a total of 140 counters. Presumably when the European traders in Canton went to place an order with a Chinese supplier, it was most convenient for both parties to choose from what was on offer. I am sure that there were options relating to quality, size and style that fell into set patterns. And in addition it is clear that there were choices to be made about finishing detail ( monogram, crests, armorials to be engraved on the counters) which also affected the price paid and the delay before collection. There must have been displays from the producers showing the various options just like in a very exclusive store nowadays; and probably set prices as well. Despite all this some people were willing to impose their own very precise requirements and to order non-standard sets of counters and to pay the price. We know that bespoke sets were luxury items even in the standard format; these special orders must have been eye-wateringly expensive. The willingness to undertake such outlay is a clear indication of just how important card-play and gambling were in Georgian society.

The set in question here was a very special order indeed. First of all we are looking at counters with deep-carved (relief-carved) decoration which was extremely time-consuming to apply with each counter needing several days' work from an experienced artist, let alone the preparatory work in grinding down the extra-thick blank pieces of mother-of-pearl on which the artwork was executed. There are various grades of artwork in deep-carved counters which show very clearly that the buyer must have been able to specify the level of intricacy and quality of work for the set and may also conceivably have been able to choose particular artists. This set was commissioned for a Mr. 'M'; he presumably did not have a coat of arms or crest otherwise he would have used them; but he did insist on the unusual step of having his monogram 'M' relief-carved into the roundel - another indication that this person was going for the very best that money could buy. The relief carved monogram is extremely rare and necessitated many hours' extra work on the set. Mr. M also chose the large size of deep-carved counters - another expensive choice. And he also chose to have artwork of exceptional quality on his set; the subject matter of the full scenes give a clear incication of this with boats, animals even an interior scene which is very unusual.  But the most unusual requirement was the composition of the set: there were as usual a larger number of large, long-oblong counters; the next value in the group in ascending order in the card-game was the round which had the value of five; but then there were six different 'squares' with the values 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 and 60. From my experiencethis is unique in this style of counter. One may assume that the set was designed with a particular card-game in mind - one Mr. M was particularly fond of; or perhaps Mrs. M??? All in all they make this set very special indeed.


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