Interest in collecting Mardi Gras memorabilia has exploded in recent years, with items from the 19th century bringing top dollar at auctions and on eBay. Demand is high, while supply, already limited, is even smaller after some rare artifacts were lost in Katrina.
Although there is an entire galaxy of categories of Carnival collectibles, the most sought-after items are those produced in very limited quantities by the city’s oldest parading organizations: Rex, Comus, Proteus and Momus. Colorful Mardi Gras ball invitations, krewe favors and jewelry are especially desirable. At a recent auction, an 1875 Rex ball invitation and admit card, purchased for $50 in 1980, sold for $5,500.
A favorite among many collectors of paper items is “Carnival Bulletins,” broadsides that depict every float in a particular parade. These foldout newspapers were published annually from 1874 to 1941. Three years ago, The New Orleans Advocate revived the tradition and now includes bulletins for 14 krewes within its daily newspapers.
Tulane University, the Historic New Orleans Collection and the main branch of the New Orleans Public Library have large collections of Mardi Gras memorabilia, but their items are only occasionally on view. However, the Louisiana State Museum has hundreds of items on permanent display at the Presbytere as well as rotating exhibits of memorabilia.
The city’s oldest restaurant, Antoine’s, also features several rooms of Carnival memorabilia from the krewes of Rex, Proteus, Twelfth Night Revelers and Hermes.
The best alterative to owning rare Mardi Gras gems is to collect Henri Schindler’s four-volume “Mardi Gras Treasures” series (Pelican Publishing Co., 2000-06). The hardbound books include hundreds of photographs of costumes, invitations, jewelry and float designs.
Less expensive collectibles include commercially produced pieces such as Mardi Gras sheet music, sound recordings, postcards, 19th century periodicals, still photographs and publications issued by various Carnival krewes.
About eight years ago, the Mardi Gras Memorabilia Society was formed. This small group of collectors meets monthly to share stories and to trade, buy and sell items.
The value of doubloon collections crashed some years ago, but the hobby survives. Because of the large quantity of items being produced today, there is little chance that any item thrown from a float will ever have much value, but that doesn’t mean it’s not fun to collect and keep them.
A survey of a handful of the area’s top collectors revealed these tips for newcomers:
Collect for the fun of it, not as an investment.
Stick with a budget and limit your hunt to a narrow range of krewes, items and dates — for example, post-World War II Rex ball invitations.
Shop flea markets, garage sales and antique shops, and check out ads for auctions in the New Orleans area. And of course, there’s always eBay.