Collecting out-of-print Tarot decks

Collecting out-of-print Tarot decks

Every Tarot collector wants that one deck. The 1980s deck that you first learned to read with (and haven’t seen since). The indie Kickstarter deck you should have bought when you had the chance. The deck that everyone raves about that’s long overdue for a reprint.

As a lifelong collector (and occasional dealer) of Tarot, I know the agony of searching for those elusive decks. I’ve written this guide to help you round up the stragglers on your list. With a little sleuthing, patience, and (moderately) deep pockets, anyone can build the Tarot collection of their dreams. This article is geared toward those who buy Tarot decks for reading and study, rather than purely for collectible value. But if you happen to make money buying and selling Tarot, more power to you!

First, it’s helpful to understand why Tarot decks go out of print in the first place. Every time a Tarot deck is created, the publisher—whether it’s the artist or a publishing company—has to make a very risky bet. They have to settle on an initial print run, or the number of copies that will be produced. The publisher uses a current budget and past sales figures to arrive at this number, but it’s not an exact science.

If the number is too low, the deck will sell out quickly, disappointing customers. If the number is too high, the publisher could be stuck with unsold copies of the deck for years, tying up cash that could have gone to other projects. Print runs vary from 500 or fewer copies from indie artists, up to tens of thousands of copies from major publishers.

Most Tarot decks never see a second print run after the initial printing sells out. However, if the deck becomes extremely popular, the publisher may opt to put a new edition. Some titles are translated into other languages, and appear in multiple sizes and formats. A classic deck may even get an anniversary edition to mark a major milestone. Not all reprints are created equal, though. Sometimes, the print quality improves and errors are corrected in the new edition. Other times, the deck suffers from flimsy paper stock, “off” colors, and skimpy packaging.

Intellectual property issues can delay or block a re-issue. The Thoth Tarot by Aleister Crowley went missing for several years. The hiatus was due to a legal dispute between the Ordo Templi Orientis, which claims the rights to the artwork, and U.S. Games Systems, Inc., which has a contract to publish the deck. Eventually, a new edition made it to the market—but not before dealers went crazy hawking the out-of-print decks on eBay.

I’ll be the first to admit it: Finding rare and out-of-print decks isn’t easy. There are thousands of different Tarot decks, most from small print runs, and no centralized resources for collectors. In addition, serious Tarot fans tend to hold on to their decks for a long time—like, until death.

Your Tarot wish list

If you’re serious about filling out a Tarot collection, the first step is to make a wish list. Patience is a virtue when hunting for Tarot, so the list will help you focused during those long stretches of no luck. Write down the name, publisher, and any other particulars—like edition or language—for your desired decks. You can also arrange the wish list by priority (“Decks I Would Sell My Firstborn For” down to “Decks I Might Buy If the Price Is Right”).

Once your collection reaches a certain size, you’ll also want to keep an inventory of decks you already own. I don’t wish for anyone to be hovering around a stinky flea market trying to remember if they already have Motherpeace.

Ready to start chipping away at that wish list? Here's four places to look for rare Tarot and oracle decks:

1. Check online marketplaces.

eBay, Amazon, and AbeBooks are the most popular venues for used Tarot decks. Searching online listings is the fastest—but probably also the most expensive—way to get your hands on a long-lost deck. The three sites listed above have the largest selection of vintage Tarot. Generally speaking, used book lots and estate sales put Tarot decks in the hands of dealers, who pass them on to collectors. Search terms like “vintage,” “original” or “OOP” will show you the current haul of collectible decks.

Browsing these three sites is a good way to find out what a particular deck is worth—or at least, what dealers want it to be worth. I’ve seen mass-market decks that originally retailed for about $20 offered for $300 or more. And that’s without the deck being particularly rare or sought-after. Some dealers buy up all the current Tarot titles they can, just hoping that the publisher will sell out and the value of the deck will shoot up.

Don’t be discouraged if you find your coveted deck listed at an insane price. Remember, the value of something is only what someone else will pay. It’s often the case that the seller has no idea what the item is worth. They do know they have only one available, and they’re simply trying to get the best price from some eager collector. The seller may come down if no one bites, or if similar listings pop up. They will certainly come down if the deck is reprinted. If you’re willing to wait, it’s entirely possible that you might find the same title somewhere else for much less.

Try setting up alerts so you can be notified when your wish list items show up in listings. Large marketplace like eBay and Amazon usually support this function. Of course, if the deck you want is truly rare and at the top of your list, you may wish to snap it up as soon as you get a chance.

Online Tarot collecting is not without its risks. Read the listing carefully, and be sure to ask any questions before checkout. Because Amazon requires an ISBN number for listings (but doesn’t keep a complete catalog of ISBNs for out-of-print titles), sellers sometimes list old Tarot items under the wrong ISBN. It’s very disappointing to get the wrong edition (or worse, a book when you were expecting a deck.)

Also, don’t assume that people selling used Tarot decks on major sites know anything about Tarot. Some may be specialists, but some are liquidators who deal in all types of books and other items. Right now on eBay, there are decks with missing cards, decks described incorrectly, and newer editions passed off as vintage. Beware of “as is” listings and sellers who don’t describe the item thoroughly with words and photos. A reputable seller should at least be able to verify that all the cards are there and provide you with the publishing info from the box or booklet.

2. Scrounge around (in person).

Your second option is poking around in cluttered rooms that smell like books. (Poor you!)

Not a lot of metaphysical shops carry used Tarot decks. Part of the reason may be superstition, or clients' worry about the energy of previous owners clinging to the deck. But the bigger reason is probably the hassle. Every used deck has to be checked for condition and completeness. Most of the decks published in the 1980s and beyond just don’t have that much value, other than sentiment. As a shop owner, I can attest that the profit margin on new decks is small enough, and the margin on run-of-the-mill used decks is miserable. But it’s worth checking if your local occult store sells or trades vintage decks.

The next stop for scrounging will be the used book stores in your area. Because of pilferage, decks are usually kept behind glass or the front counter, so you may have to ask for them. Tarot can also show up at such unlikely places as estate sales, rummage sales, auctions, and library sales. Workers at these things don’t always know where to place the decks, so I check the New Age section, the games section, and the rare book shelf. (Unfortunately, the general public seems to think Tarot decks are worth a lot more than they are. Don’t be shy about setting them straight with a cash offer.)

When you run across vintage Tarot decks at a reasonable price, buy them all! Honestly, do it. Whether the decks are on your list or not, they’re really neat to rifle through and they don’t take up much room. They could be a useful bargaining chip when you meet with other collectors. (See #4, below.)

Magickal folks, you can use visualization and intuition to make a hard-to-find Tarot deck come to you. Put your intention out there, then go where your hunches and whims lead you. If you have access to a favorite image from the deck, print it out and put it with your collection. Or you can simply visualize yourself reading the deck or holding it in your hands. Then follow your nose and keep your eyes peeled for your new deck.

3. Contact the artist or publisher.

Through the wonders of the information age, it’s now possible to get in touch with nearly any (living) artist or author. It’s a long shot, but it just might yield up a Tarot deck or at least a hot tip.

Try sending a message to the deck creator through their website or Facebook page. Tell ‘em how much you love the deck, and how disappointed you are that you missed the limited edition, or gave away your personal copy, or lost it after revel fire that one night, or whatever. Then ask them if they know any way that the deck can be obtained.

Sometimes, artists will have a limited number of copies that they keep for family and friends. They may be willing to sell you one. Perhaps there’s been a second printing that you didn’t know about. Could be a bookstore in Winnipeg has some old stock. Maybe they’ll tell you about a new deck they’re working on that’s so awesome, you’ll cross the old one off your list.

Reaching out to artists that inspire you is usually very gratifying, even if it doesn’t land you a deck. Artists need love! For out-of-print titles stuck in purgatory, your message will at least demonstrate some interest, and possibly nudge them toward another print run.

I’m shy, so I’ll admit that this is not my favorite strategy of the bunch. Several years ago, I was desperate to get my hands on the rare-ish Alchemical Tarot by Robert Place. I got a large tattoo from the deck on my leg, and the plan was to send him a pic and ask if he had a deck to sell me. But I chickened out! I (Fortunately, it was later reprinted.)

Nowadays, I chat with lots of deck creators, and I’ve found them to be a great resource for finding those rare decks and special extras. Many creators are collectors, also. They’re often the first to know when a re-issue or new release is forthcoming. Re-issues always drive down the price of out-of-print decks, so this is useful intel whether you buy or sell Tarot.

4. Connect with other collectors.

Other Tarot collectors make wonderful fishing buddies. Whether you meet them online or in person, connecting with Tarot community will yield a wealth of information. They can help you set up trades, find new leads, evaluate purchases, and identify your decks. The only danger here is that your wish list will grow and grow!

If you have decks in your collection that you no longer want, other collectors will be happy to take them off your hands. Bring a handful of old decks to Tarot classes and spiritual book swaps, and they may find a happy new home. A Tarot meetup I used to attend had a monthly “Show and Tell” that very often turned into “Show and Sell.”

For many years, the leading online Tarot swap community has been on the Aecletic Tarot forums (registration required for most features). They are generally fair and knowledgeable folks. You can post buy/sell requests or show off your collection! Remember, the only thing better than finding a much-longed-for deck is helping someone else to do the same.

Happy collecting!

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