Last update: February 12, 2010
Here are some general guidelines you can use to estimate your set's age:
"I have an antique MJ set from the mid-1800's, complete with original
English instructions. How much is it worth?"
No way!!! That's impossible. The game of Mah-Jongg may indeed have been played as early as the mid-1800's, but sets were most definitely not manufactured for foreign export until after 1911 when the game became widely available to the Chinese public. The earliest known documented writings of Mah-Jongg are in the 1890's. The first sets for export to the West were made in 1919-1920. That means that tiles did not have Arabic numerals (1,2,3,4...) or Roman letters (E,S,W,N...) on them until the 1920's -- and there were no instructions written in English until then either. You may indeed have an antique set, but you're going to have to re-evaluate the set's age.
"I have a Craftmaster set that says it was made in 1915. The tiles have Western indices and English rules. That seems to contradict the information on your site that says such sets shouldn't have existed before 1920. What gives?"
As near as I can figure out, Craftmaster Corporation made that set in 1923 (the date on the instruction booklet). The game includes a tile that refers to a 1915 patent application. I imagine that the 1915 patent application was for some kind of game tiles (which probably didn't yet have mah-jongg designs on them in 1915). In checking patent numbers at www.uspto.gov, I found that patents granted in 1915 would all have to fall into the range of 11233212 through 1166418 - I couldn't find information on patent application numbers for 1915, nor what Craftmaster was trying to patent in 1915. If anybody finds definitive information on "Craftmaster tile patent application, serial number 640731 series of 1915," please post it on the Mah-Jongg Q&A Bulletin Board.
"I am trying to determine the age of my set. It looks a lot like one I've seen for sale on eBay. The seller of that set said that it was 170 years old, but your FAQ 11 says mah-jongg didn't even exist yet in 1834! The seller is from China - surely they ought to know about mah-jongg history in the country of the game's origin, right? Help me overcome my confusion."
It's very disturbing that somebody would make claims like that, but some sellers will say anything to make a sale. And yes, you would think that the Chinese would know about the history of what some of them call "the national game," but sadly, most folks prefer to believe legend and myth than to actually research facts. I saw the set the asker was talking about, and it didn't look older than 70 years to me (much less a hundred and seventy!). That seller should be reprimanded by eBay, but eBay would have to be convinced that we Western mah-jongg researchers (and some whom I've met in China) are right, that the seller should know better (and intentionally perpetrated a fraud), and that a grievous wrong has been committed on buyers. And of course eBay can't go after every seller who ages sets of recent origin so they look ancient, whether or not the seller claims the set to be from the Qing Dynasty. Just don't believe the hype.
Is my set an antique?
You'll have to define what "antique" means to you. Some people say anything older than 50-60 years is an antique. Others say 100 years. Your set appears to be around 70-80 years old - I don't know if that means it's an "antique" or not.
Is this a vintage set?
I have no idea what "vintage" means to you!
If you want me to try to help you determine a set's age, you have to do some homework. I need you to fill out the complete checklist below. I don't own a crystal ball! (I sometimes joke that I do own one but that it's in the repair shop.) Not being psychic, I need clues. And only you can give them to me.
Do not use this checklist if you want me to tell you the value of your set. Use the valuation checklist in FAQ 7h if that's what you want to know.
1. Write a factual detailed list of all the contents of your set. Describe all the contents, listing all dice, chips, racks, etc. If you do not know what to call the pieces, see our FAQ 7d.
2. If the set contains any paper materials, like an instruction booklet or scoring card, write the title, author's name (if any), and date (if any) of those materials.
3. What are the tiles made of? (See our FAQ 7c.)
4. Describe what you know about when the set was made or purchased, if you know. Describe the history of the set to the best of your knowledge. See our FAQ 11 before you make any unsupportable claims (such as "this set is over a hundred years old!" or "this set is from the Qing Dynasty!"); the knowledgeable collectors can see through claims that are ignorant of the actual history of the game.
5. What are the dimensions of the tiles? Use either inches or metric (one or the other, not both - doesn't matter which; just be precise). Height, width, depth. If the tiles are bone & bamboo, give thickness of the bone portion. (Same goes for ivory & bamboo tiles.)
6. How many tiles are there in the set? Your best bet is to lay out the tiles on a table in 4 rows of identical tiles (as is done in our FAQ 7a), then you can just multiply and arrive at the number. And take a picture while you're at it. Tell potential buyers or appraisers an exact breakdown (you can't just say "all the tiles" or "it's complete" or "148 tiles" or "156 tiles" - you have to break it down. How many flowers, how many jokers, and are the basic 136 - suits, winds, dragons - all present?).
7. What kind of container does the set come in? If it's wood, is it one of those flat boxes with a sliding top, or is it one of those squarish boxes with drawers, and if so how many drawers? Does the container have any clear signs of age?
8. Which kind of craks are in this set -- the older kind or the later kind? Take a picture to provide to the appraiser.
Most early (1920s) sets used the simpler-style crak character. But not all. See FAQ 7e.
Most modern (1970s to date) sets use the more elaborate-style crak character. But not all.
9. Provide a picture of the One Bams. These tiles can sometimes tell a lot about which part of China the set came from.
10. Provide a picture of the dragons too. These tiles can sometimes tell a lot about which era of mah-jongg history the set came from.
11. And provide a picture of the flowers/seasons. These tiles are sometimes exotic and can provide information about the age of a set. And you need to tell me how many flowers/seasons there are. Note: You can just call them all "flowers," I don't care how many of them are "seasons" vs. "flowers" (seasons = flowers - they're the same thing, functionally. I just need a number). This is especially important for American-style sets, since the NMJL required differing amounts of flowers and jokers for a number of years.
12. How many jokers (if any) does the set have? Are the jokers manufactured, with the design carved or embossed into the surface - or are they stickered? If there are stickers, do they appear old and worn, are they coming detached? If the set has jokers, and if the jokers are manufactured/carved/embossed (not stickered), then count how many natural (not stickered, and not nail-polished) jokers the set contains (and how many flowers it contains). Then read column #311 and see if you can figure out when the set was made.
Pictures are important. You need to take photos of the set. See how sellers on Ebay arrange their sets, observe what looks like a good sales photo and what does not. And if you don't have access to a digital camera, your photos need to be scanned so you can email them or post them on Ebay, or link to them from
our Sets For Sale board, to sell your set. For information about image hosting, click here.
Once you have completed the age checklist, you can either compare it with similar sets on Jim May's website (see link below), or you can send your completed checklist and your photos to an appraiser.
You can email your completed checklist and your photos to me, but be advised that I don't give free confidential answers - the answer will be given on the Q&A Bulletin Board. "When you email me, I own it." When you email me for a free mah-jongg set age evaluation, you thereby give me your implied consent to publish your descriptions and photos on this website. If that is not acceptable to you, then the age evaluation will not be free. Email to inquire about pricing. I give free information only in this public forum.
If you are going to email me some photos, please crop and resize the photos appropriately for emailing. It isn't nice to send photos that are bigger than, like, two megapixels. They must be in JPG format, not BMP or TIF format. Do NOT send photos in PDF or DOC format. Send JPGs ONLY. And they must be ATTACHMENTS (not embedded in the email).
"When you email me, I own it." When you email me for a free mah-jongg set age appraisal, you thereby give me your implied consent to publish your descriptions and photos on this website, and to use the photos in the FAQs if they depict some unusual feature. If that is not acceptable to you, then the evaluation will not be free. Email to inquire about pricing. I give free information only in this public forum.
I WON'T CLICK LINKS YOU SEND ME. If you're not sending pictures, please read all of FAQ 7 and learn what constitutes a good question that I can be helpful with. The most frequently asked questions are already answered therein.
If you want information about the company that manufactured your set, I can't help you. Please read FAQ 7U.
Email on this topic, from the Mahjong Q&A Bulletin Board:
Is this set pre-1920's?
>Sent: Monday, April 6, 2009 7:20:25 AM
>Subject: old set from Hawaii
>I have an old Mah-Jongg set passed down through my family who lived in Hawaii at the turn of the century. The family had Chinese servants, and the story on this set is that it was given as a going-away present when the family moved to California in 1918. But your website says the early sets were produced around the 1920's, so that is confusing to the family story!
>The set is kept in a wooden box - red with brass hinges, corners, etc. No drawers or such so I assume the original box is lost. The lid slides on. The tiles are obviously bone and bamboo, with no jokers. I will attach photos. The set is complete and even has 7 extra tiles, which could be used as jokers if I buy one more. There is a small wooden box with sliding lid and 5 tiny dice, as well as 4 wooden round wind markers.
>Question - were any of these sets made before 1920? If so, then the family story is wrong and the set must have been purchased in the U.S.
>The family always thought this was bamboo and ivory, but through research on your website, I discovered that it is bone and not bamboo. Thanks for your thorough details and descriptions !
Read FAQ 7g and FAQs 11a & 11h.
Mah-Jongg wasn't popular outside of China yet, before Babcock did his thing.
Mah-Jongg sets weren't made for export yet, before Babcock.
Therefore mah-jongg sets were made for domestic (Chinese) use only, before Babcock.
How many Chinese would have needed the letters E, S, W, N on the wind tiles?
How many Chinese would have needed the numerals 1, 2, 3, 4... on the craks? (Why would anybody need numerals on the dots and bams, but let's pass over that!)
Therefore this set was not made during the period before sets were made for export.
Therefore this set was not made before the 1920s.
Anyone who's read those FAQs should see the infallibility of the logic in the above line of reasoning.
CHarli's museum page is a great resource if you are looking for information about collectible mah-jongg sets and manufacturers http://www.charli.org/Mah_Jong/Museum/welcome.htm.
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Copyright 2001-2012 Tom Sloper. All rights reserved.