Antique & Vintage Mahjong Sets



2015-06-26 11:18:21

Antique & Vintage Mahjong Sets are collectible board games dating from the 18th to the 20th century.


Brief History

Mahjong is considered to have originated in China around two thousand years ago. It remained exclusive to the nobility for centuries and was banned among commoners. Those who were caught playing the game were punished with decapitation. The game proliferated in other parts of the globe after the ban was lifted around 500 A.D.

The American anthropologist Stewart Culin wrote the first known account of mahjong outside of the Chinese language in 1895.

Another American, Joseph Babcock, is widely known to be responsible for introducing the game in the US in 1920. He manufactured the first few mahjong sets that were imported to America and also wrote simpler regulations on how to play the game. To help popularise mahjong, Babcock converted the Chinese characters in the game to symbols that Americans could relate to.

During the peak of its popularity in the US, Shanghai-made mahjong sets were imported to the US by American businessmen. By the late 1920s, interest in the game began to wane. During the 1930s US depression, mahjong was revived as a form of entertainment.

The set of tiles used and the rules followed in mahjong may vary depending on the country where it is played. One rule though remains constant in mahjong, which is four players are required to play the game.

Guide for Collectors

Rare bakelite or catalin enrobed tiles that have a two-tone look are sought after by antique mahjong collectors. Bakelite is a type of plastic that was invented by Leo Baekeand in 1907 while catalin, which is a derivate of Bakelite, was created by the Catalin Corporation in the 1930s.

Bakelite Corporation’s mahjong sets were in high demand during the early 1900s. People then had no trouble acquiring these sets as they were readily available and also reasonably priced. Bakelite mahjong sets are American-made.

Catalin mahjong sets were manufactured by Cardinal Industries of Long Island, New York from the 1950s up to 1970s. Their sets featured Arabic numeral inscriptions. The company also sold mahjong sets that showcased dragon features under their Dragon line. Vintage Cardinal mahjong sets are marked with joker stickers fixed on the tiles.

Another material used in the production of mahjong sets is French Ivory, a celluloid formulated by John Hyatt in the 1860s. A lot of mahjong set makers before however were not fond of using this material as it was quite pricey. This partly explains why vintage French Ivory mahjong sets are considered to be a rarity today.

Notable Auction Sales

The priciest of mahjong sets sold at auction includes a Chinese cherrywood mahjong box with double brass handles. This particular set was believed to have been made in 1924. The tiles are made of bone and bamboo. It was bought for AUS$2,000 at an auction offered by Aalders Auction on April 9, 2011.

A mother of pearl mahjong set with a leather case made in the early 20th Century was sold for $1,200 in an auction offered by Phoebus Auction Gallery on January 1, 2010.

On March 6, 2010, a carved wooden mahjong box with ivory pieces was sold for $1,200 at an auction by Time and Again Auction Gallery.

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