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Republican-era mah-jong set c.1920 retailed by Jaques of London – £3700 at Sheffield Auction Gallery.

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Unlike the ancient games of backgammon and chess, created roughly 5000 and 1400 years ago respectively, mah-jong did not emerge as a court pastime until around the middle of the 19th century, with the earliest known writings on skill and strategy dating from the 1890s.

Certainly it was not widely available to the Chinese public until after the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911 and did not reach the West until a decade later.

Most ‘vintage’ sets accordingly date from the post-war era when the game’s popularity exploded.

Prices of around £30-50 are typical for most auction offerings.

Foreign export

The example that was offered for sale at Sheffield Auction Gallery on March 20 was rather better.

Housed in a brass-bound hardwood box with a slide lid and drawers, it probably dates to c.1920-25, marking it as among the first sets that were made for foreign export.

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A detail of the bovine bone and bamboo tiles of the Republican-era mah-jong set that sold for £3700 at Sheffield Auction Gallery.

The 144 finely engraved tiles, made in bovine bone and bamboo, have Arabic numerals (earlier sets have only Chinese characters) but it comes with instructions written in English titled Mah-Jongg (an early Anglicised spelling of the game).

The simple blue-printed booklet includes the name of Jaques, the venerable London firm responsible for croquet, ludo, snakes and ladders and the Staunton pattern chess set.

International mah-jong collectors identified this as something worth far more than the £50-80 estimate – indeed one of just a small handful of mah-jong sets that can command a four-figure sum.

The winning bid, tendered via thesaleroom.com, was £3700 (plus 20% buyer’s premium).