The Market in Antique and Vintage Board Games
The board game is enjoying a welcome revival. As with vinyl, a younger generation is embracing the analogue, and, once again, bookshops are stocking a variety of old-fashioned board games, albeit re-designed for the 21st century. Perhaps this is a reaction to the soulless world of computer games- for traditional games are very much about human interaction. People have played board games since the days of the Ancient World. Senat (an early ‘blocking’ game), found in Egyptian burial tombs of the First Dynasty, is believed by archaeologists to be the earliest game extant. And although the original rules are lost, Egyptologists have reconstructed gameplay based on ancient texts.
Antique board games are fascinating- and unusual- items to collect, and prices are rising. Many of these games derive from the Game of Goose concept (a classic of game design) first recorded in the 15th century. The objective is simple: to be the first player to finish (along a set track), avoiding obstacles and pitfalls along the path. Historically, these early games were prized assets: in the 1580s, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Francesco I de’ Medici, presented a Game of Goose to King Philip II of Spain.
During the late 18th and 19th centuries, board games were often educational, decorated with colourful, hand-painted illustrations, printed on paper laid onto folded waxed linen, often depicting historical, geographic or scientific subjects. Wallis’s New Game of Genius or Compendium of Inventions connected with Sciences accompanied by the Arts, published in 1835 for the ‘amusement and instruction of the youth of both sexes’ featured scientific triumphs of times past, including microscopes, telescopes, globes, hot air balloons, paddle steamers, magic lanterns, early railway engines and a camera obscura. This game is rare: a good example (including slipcase) fetched a bullish £3,000 at Forum Auctions in November 2019. During the Regency period, Wallis (a prolific London publisher) produced a variety of beautifully illustrated games: The Panorama of Europe (1815) (£550, Forum Auctions) and Wonders of Nature (1818) (£550 Forum Auctions) are especially decorative and collectable.
Similarly, Albert Smith’s The New Game of the Ascent of Mont Blanc (1861), again based on the Game of Goose concept, fetched £3,200 at Forum Auctions in 2021. Albert Smith first ascended Mont Blanc in the summer of 1851. His Mont Blanc show (held at the Egyptian Hall in London’s Piccadilly) became a popular overnight sensation, running for six years with 2,000 performances, including a special presentation for Queen Victoria and Prince Albert at Osborne House. The market in antique board games often strays across alternative collecting spheres: the robust auction price, in this case, no doubt boosted by the game’s appeal to mountaineering and exploration aficionados- as much as to connoisseurs of the board game.
And for students of military history, board games also reflect the worlds of politics, diplomacy and conflict. In The Eventful Career of Napoleon Buonoparte (£1,400, Mellors & Kirk), a series of colourful, hand-stencilled vignettes traces Napoleon’s career from the Revolutionary Wars to his exile on the island of St Helena in the South Atlantic. Moving forward to the 20th century, Dennis Wheatley’s prescient board game, Invasion (1938), offers players the chance to defend Britain against a continental power. And that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Board games were produced on endless themes of every variety and subject, reflecting popular topics and interests of their day: horse, motor, cycle and greyhound racing, fishing, international travel, aviation, golf, cricket, railways, shopping in a department store, the Panama Canal and The Prisoner of Zenda- even the Suffragette movement had its own board game, sold to raise funds for the cause (Pank-a-Squith ).
No article on games would be complete without a mention of Monopoly– perhaps the most famous board game of them all. Monopoly is a product of the Great American Depression of the 1930s when enterprising (and hard-up) enthusiasts invented a succession of homemade board games based on finance, capitalism and property speculation. In the early 1930s, Charles Darrow, an unemployed heating engineer, created his own homemade Monopoly set based on other property games then popular in Indianapolis. Darrow patented his game in 1933 and sold the rights the following year. That same set- the earliest ‘Darrow’ set thought to survive- belonged to Malcolm Forbes (one of the 20th century’s great toy collectors) which sold at Sotheby’s for $146,500 (including buyer’s premium) in 2010; acquired by the National Museum of Play of Rochester New York, already the home of an impressive collection of 65 historical Monopoly sets.
An earlier board game (along a similar financial theme) is McLoughlin Brothers’ Bulls and Bears- The Great Wall Street Game (1883), which realised an extraordinary $17,000 (£12,900) at Pook and Pook auctioneers of Downingtown, Pennsylvania. The game includes tokens based on known stock market characters of the day, paper money and a spinning board. Yet another copy of the same game (‘very mild water staining, some seam tears’) fetched $6,500 ($4,967) at Bertoia Auctions, New Jersey, in 2022- demonstrating the importance of condition and the vagaries of a smallish, niche market with a limited number of collectors.
For popular, cross-over markets influence value. 007 Underwater Battle (1965), a board game manufactured by Tri-ang, a company better known for toy trains and model railways, is a commercial tie-in based on the James Bond film Thunderball, boasting miniature frogmen, plastic sharks and a Spectre submarine. A good example fetched £420 at Aston’s Auctioneers in Dudley in 2018. Bond memorabilia is- and will probably remain fashionable for the unforeseeable future- which helps to explain the auction result. But as time passes, board games from the mid-20th century are becoming increasingly collectable. Although many games from the 1930s, through to the 1970s, are still very affordable, prices, in some instances, are beginning to match values once reserved for earlier antique games- supported by a thriving parallel market online. Condition and completeness are crucial. A missing piece or a tatty box can make all the difference.
Visit our Collectables and Pop Culture Memorabilia department for more information.
This article is courtesy of a highly-valued AAG Specialist who is also writer, blogger and former auction specialist turned antiques dealer – with over twenty-five years experience in the British and American art market.