NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
When Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks held up a deck of playing cards at an April 11 press briefing in Qatar, a roomful of journalists saw a clever way to package images of the Iraqi leadership.
Watching at home, some enterprising collectors saw a way to make a little cash.
The cards were designed "to provide a reminder of key Iraqi personnel of interest and to provide a recreational resource for troops in the field," according to the Department of Defense.
"We try to have things that have dual usage whenever we can," said U.S. Army Major Randi Steffy, a Central Command spokesperson.
Only a few days after the general introduced the cards, collectors have already started looking to acquire them.
Bids for what sellers claim are "authentic" decks of the cards have easily crossed the $100 line on eBay. As of Tuesday morning, one deck of the cards had been bid up to $230.
Even CDs featuring a .pdf file of the cards are being sold -- despite the fact that the same electronic images are freely available on Defense Department Web sites. Max Hodges, an eBay seller hawking CDs of the electronic file, claimed he was selling a high resolution version of the images. He assumes that many buyers want to use the file to print their own reproductions of the cards and sell them, he said.
Hodges said he is also having cards printed and selling them. "My plan is to hit the pavement and sell them in gun shops and liquor stores," he said.
A real deck of the Most Wanted Iraqis playing cards will be tough to find, however. An initial print run of only "a couple hundred decks" has been sent to Central Command in Qatar for distribution, said Lieutenant Commander Jim Brooks, a spokesperson for the the Defense Intelligence Agency.
The DIA printed that initial run in its own printing facility before the war started, he said, and they were delivered at about the time hostilities started. Should CentCom request a full run of cards, the DIA would go to an outside contractor for printing.
Since the images are freely available on the Internet, the cards would be easy to counterfeit, said Brooks. That initial run of cards was produced on ordinary heavy paper stock. They were individually hand cut, he noted, without rounded corners or the special coatings typically used on commercially available playing cards.
"Technically you could run it through a printer," he said.
In addition to actual decks of cards and the electronic files, you can buy other card-related memorabilia on eBay, such as reproductions, posters and mouse pads with images of the cards.
How do you know?
Bidding for what sellers claim are "authentic" decks of the cards currently go for as much as $150. At least one seller claims, "Through calling in a few favors, I was able to get my hands on a limited number of decks!" This auction page Monday night offered a "Buy it now" price of $8.99 for one of almost 2,700 decks the seller claims to have.
"I learned a long time ago you need a little patience and a little skepticism," said Walter Mach, vice president of auctions for 52 Plus Joker, a playing card collector's club.
Mach compares the current situation with the Most Wanted Iraqi cards to other collectibles crazes.
"You're always gonna get some sucker who says, 'I want the first original ones out there,'" he said.
So-called "spotter" cards were produced for U.S. forces during World War II, and the Korean and Vietnam conflicts, said Mach. The cards produced during those wars featured silhouettes of enemy aircraft, he said, and typically sell for about $100 at auction today. Those cards were more like real playing cards than what the DIA spokesperson described, Mach said.
Once a verifiably authentic example of the cards is available, he said, buyers will be able to learn whether they've been had. Things like the size of the cards, the color of the card stock and printing quality will provide clues, he said.
Cards are small, portable and durable, unlike flip charts that might be used under other circumstances. Their added entertainment function provides incentive for soldiers to keep reviewing the names and images. "Given the way special forces operate playing might be a good idea," said Brooks.
The cards would also provide a handy code for soldiers to refer to enemy personnel, he said, in case someone might be listening. "If you're out in the field you can say, 'Hey, I think I have the five of diamonds here,'" he said.
Indeed, Abd Al-Baqi Abd Al-Karim Abdallah Al-Sadun, the Baath party district chairman on the 5 of diamonds card, probably would be a valuable catch.
The big prize, however, would surely be the ace of spades, which is the face card for Saddam Hussein.
But only if he's authentic, of course.