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Treasures: Mahjong set needs to be complete for full value

This game has its roots in Asia but it was widely played in the United States. (Handout/TNS)
This game has its roots in Asia but it was widely played in the United States. (Handout/TNS) TNS

Dear Helaine and Joe:

We have been cleaning out my parents’ house and have long wondered if this mahjong game chest is valuable. The pieces are ivory and once belonged to a great uncle. Any ideas?

Thank you,

B. C.

Dear B. C.:

Yes, we have a few ideas. But first we want to discuss the notion that the game pieces in the set were (at least partially) made from ivory. It is our belief they were not, which may be a good thing because of a ban on the sale of many ivory objects in the United States.

The photographs we received were fine, but the issue of whether or not the pieces were made from a substance taken from an endangered species such as elephant ivory posed a real red flag issue. Thank goodness for modern electronics, because when we zoomed in on the images, we saw a scattering of tiny dark spots on the surface of the creamy colored substance that was thought to be ivory.

Ivory does not have these dark specks, but bone does. We are reasonably sure the tops of the mahjong tiles are bone, while the bottoms are bamboo. This is standard for mahjong sets of the 1920s and perhaps slightly beyond. We have no reason to suspect the grouping is different from other similar games.

If the tiles in B. C.’s set had been made from ivory, we feel the box would have been much fancier, perhaps with foo dog handles, carved chinoiserie panels or perhaps sumptuous Chinese-style brass work. Such sets have sold for as much as $8,000 at auction. But the box in today’s question is not nearly this ornate or finely made.

Mahjong originated in China’s Qing dynasty (1644 to 1911) and was based on a card game named “ma chioh.” It was a draw-and-discard game similar to rummy card games familiar to many in the U.S.

It was played with 120 to 150 cards and was popular in 18th and 19th century China. It gradually morphed into a game that used tiles instead of cards called “maque,” which means “sparrow,” because the tiles clacking together during the shuffling process is said the resemble the sounds the birds make.

Eventually, maque became mahjong, and the earliest surviving mahjong sets date to the 1870s. Playing mahjong became something of a fad in the United States in the 1920s. Many homes across the country had a set, and they were often the source for an evening’s entertainment for two couples. (Some versions can be played with three people and a solitary version does exist, but most times the game is played with four players.)

Many versions of the game exist, but most of the ones found in the U.S. have 144 tiles. B. C. needs to check that the set is complete with this number, plus counters to keep score, dice, a marker to show who the dealer is and which round is being played.

At auction a set such as this one should sell in the $250 to $350 range if the set is complete and undamaged.

Helaine Fendelman and Joe Rosson have written a number of books on antiques. Do you have an item you’d like to know more about? Contact them at Joe Rosson, 2504 Seymour Ave., Knoxville, TN 37917, or email them at treasures@knology.net. If you’d like your question to be considered for their column, please include a high-resolution photo of the subject, which must be in focus, with your inquiry.

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