Interviews with Johni Levene* and Carol Harper (aka CHarli)**

I want to thank both these lovely ladies for their time and expertise to make our Special Collector Newsletter possible.  I have learned a lot from them and hope that passing their knowledge on to you in this “Classroom Corner” edition will help you avoid pitfalls of collecting or buying a vintage set, restoring a set, or just help you to learn what set you have that you inherited from your Mom, Grandmother, or Aunt.

MJMentorHow did you become a collector?

CHarli:  I’ve been a collector all my life.  And I actually started collecting stamps first, when I was still in school I found one on the floor, picked it up and continued from there.  My influence for collecting was my Aunt who was a collector too.  Then I saw a MahJongg set at a yard sale and wanted it but it wasn’t until later that I actually started.  I collected boxes first, and I am a lover of art, and love Asian things, so it was a natural progression to sets.  I just loved the artistry, and in fact, I was a collector before I even knew how to play.  I learned to play Wright Patterson rules first.   Once I saw that an actress started a mahjong tile bracelet rage,  I began buying sets so they wouldn’t destroyed, I wanted to rescue as many sets as I could!

Johni:  I was a collector before I knew how to play, because I was already a collector of old games, cards, cribbage boards etc.  At a flea market I saw a lady selling MahJongg jewelry and asked her why she would put holes in such gorgeous tiles.  She said that in the 60s the National MahJongg League (NMJL) added 8 jokers to the game and it obsoleted all the old sets.  So I decided to restore old sets to add jokers.  Along the way I learned that there were hundreds of shades and sizes to consider to make jokers.  I learned it was an intricate endeavor, as I began to restore the sets, clean and polish them etc.  The types of cleaners to use, the shades and sizes of different tiles were virtually unlimited, finding and matching could get very difficult. But I could see that this was a very needed service, and since I was a mom at home, I thought this could be a great avocation, let alone a business.

MJMentor:  What advice would you give a new collector about looking to buy vintage sets?

Johni:  Consider why you want a vintage set:  For the sheer enjoyment to play with a “bygone era” set?  Do you look at it as an investment?  Mahjongg sets are one of the most undervalued collectables out there.  They are beautiful works of art.  Also, beware of inexpensive sets; many can be missing tiles or have missed matched tiles.  It can cost you more to piece meal a set together in both time and money, then to buy a nice restored set from a collector.  I sell many sets each month on my FB MahJonggMarketplace and our FB group at MahJonggThat’s It!  can also be a resource as well.  If you want to complete a set as a fun project that’s one thing, but you can get good sets at good prices from collectors that already have complete sets and they are reputable dealers.

CHarli:  Make sure the set you are about to buy has at least 152 tiles,  that way you can play any rule set.  Remember, a good set is not cheap.  If you shop on Ebay or another site like that, be careful.  Ask questions, make sure they have lots of pictures so you can see what you are getting.  If they won’t answer your questions, beware.  Restoration  is different from repairing, be sure you understand that some repairs actually take away from the value. Some restoration should be handled by a professional and can be expensive.  My site, has some help for simple cleaning and also for identifying your set.  Dee Gallo’s site at has some good references on paint restoration.  Educate yourself and think about what you want in a set.  If you want a set like your Mother’s just to play with, then a Royal or a Cardinal might be all you need.  But a great resource to educate yourself is the “MahJonggCollector” magazine.  It is loaded with research and very well done. Last bit of advice:  Be willing to accept that vintage sets with all their charms, including imperfections.

MJMentor:  What do you recommend about restoring sets?

CHarli:   If you are going to paint your set, be sure to follow directions from a professional like Dee.  When I restore a set, I do one color at a time and all the tiles that have that color before going to the next color, to maintain consistency throughout the set.  Be careful on cleaning some products can actually do damage.  Cleaning the case; the biggest issue I hear is the smell. Know that the cloth in the lid will absorb more odor than the oilcloth, so replace it. To clean the rest of the case, I use Lysol, it deodorizes and kills mold and mildew (Chlorox does not, and it will damage the oilcloth) Tiles cause most of the odor, it’s the nature of Bakelite and Catalin, I do believe they continually give off gases, if you feel you have to clean them – A damp (with water)

cloth only please, then dry.  Don’t try to restore a bamboo or ivory set yourself, both are extremely porous and if you mess up it’s over.  I also have thousands of orphan tiles for adoption so if you are missing a few to complete a set, please get in touch with me. I will ask you to send me a tile from your set to use comparing to orphans, but I do return it.

Johni:  Restoring a set can be very time consuming and although, not inexpensive, it is best left to a professional.   I have seen many sets ruined by someone using magic marker or nail polish or other terrible methods.   I have placed some tips to restoring tiles in our documents on our facebook page at “MahJonggThat’s It!”, which can be helpful too.  If you are missing tiles, we can get them carved or painted to match your set, or if you send me a tile I can sometimes find a match in my spares.   There are others who can help you find a tile you need.  One especially good source is Matt Shemp at where you can buy orphans from him.  He is upstanding and honest and you can order from his site.

MJMentor:  What I have learned from these interviews, the MahJongg Collector magazine and the book, MahJongg, the Art of the Game is that true collecting is almost an art in itself and is best left to the professionals.  But if you love the game as much as we all do, have fun playing and collecting along the way!


*Johni Levene is a restoration specialist, collector and avid MahJongg teacher.  She also runs two sites on facebook:  MahJonggMarketplace and MahjonggThat’sIt!  She has over 400 MahJongg sets, lives in the greater LA area, and has even taught celebrities how to play.


** CHarli, aka Carol Harper, lives in the Chesapeake Bay area and has over 600 Mahjongg sets.  A former pilot, and computer specialist, CHarli created a very robust site on line as early as 1998, with it eventually becoming in 2000, where you can also find beautiful stickers for your orphan tiles, or needed jokers.  “I love the game and love the sets” is why she does this.