The smart collector: Enrobed tiles, yellowed by age, desirable in old mahjong sets

2012-07-22T00:00:00Z The smart collector: Enrobed tiles, yellowed by age, desirable in old mahjong setsDanielle Arnet Tribune Media Services Arizona Daily Star
July 22, 2012 12:00 am  • 

Q: My mahjong set dates from before the early 1940s. There are ashtrays at the ends of each rack. I've searched online for sets with ashtrays and found none. I've never seen another like it. How do I determine value, and how can I sell this unique set? The case is in sad shape.

A: First, let's tell readers, especially younger ones who may not be familiar with mahjong, about the game. Commonly played by four players, the game of strategy and skill (it reminds many of the card game rummy) is played with tiles. Mahjong originated in China and arrived in the U.S. in the 1920s, when it became a rage. The first sets here were sold by Abercrombie and Fitch. If our reader has the original A and F case, that's a plus. If so, lesser condition is allowed, as long as the case is intact.

There are official rules, but regional differences on how the game is scored are common. The 136 tiles refer to Chinese symbols, but there is leeway on the number of tiles. Many players buy or pick up more through the years.

No longer the hot game it once was, mahjong still has a core of dedicated players.

Complete original game sets in excellent condition can bring serious money. On, we found a complete set with 162 enrobed (more about that in a bit) Bakelite/red tiles sold on eBay in 2011 for $1,326.75.

Ashtrays are neither common nor rare on sets, and having them or not isn't a deal breaker. What counts when it comes to value are tiles.

Early sets had tiles made of early plastics such as Catalin and Bakelite. Tiles were also made of bone and bamboo, but plastics are most popular.

Simple tiles, even those with a design, bow to enrobed tiles, or tiles that incorporate another color. The second, vivid color can be along the edges, or on the tile back, or in any combo. Red with the original plastic, now yellowed by age, is most desirable. Enrobed red tiles that have aesthetic designs are unbeatable.

A red enrobed set of tiles alone brought $695; a complete set with case and 160 red enrobed tiles, $1,050.

A burgundy enrobed complete set sold for $800, as did a 1930s set having Bakelite tiles with green backs.

We found simple, old sets with basic tiles sold on eBay for as little as $55. Most sets sell there because that's where buyers hunt.

Avoid auction when selling, unless the house has had success with mahjong sets. Standard auctions often do not realize top dollar.

Q: What is this? I put it in the hall and hang my keys from it. If you'll tell me what it is, I'll research it on the Net.

A: Seen in images sent, the reader has a cast iron decorative small plaque with a pierced, open back and a curved iron heavy wire with a sharp point at the end. The wire hook points upward from the plaque's bottom front.

Hanging keys is a perfect use (this is one smart collector!), because the piece is a late Victorian hook for skeleton keys. An alternate use was as a receipt holder for a general store. In any case, it's a wall hanging hook for just about anything lightweight. Not clothing, because of the sharp point.

Search eBay and the Net for Victorian skeleton key holders; you'll see that they sell for under $25. Fancier versions can bring more.


Q: Can you identify at least three features included in a Victorian lady's swimwear: Sewn-in weights, heavy flannels, dark colors, slippers, a corset, oil skin cap and sash?

A: Milady's "swim costume" as it was known, involved everything but the sash. The aggregate weight was so great that women could only wade! Source: "Victorian Costume for Ladies 1860-1900: 2nd Ed." by Linda Setnik (Schiffer, $29.99).

Danielle Arnet welcomes questions from readers. She cannot respond to each one individually, but will answer those of general interest in her column. Send e-mail to or write Danielle Arnet, c/o Tribune Media Services, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Suite 1400, Chicago, IL 60611. Please include an address in your query. Photos cannot be returned.

Copyright 2015 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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