Chess sets come in all shapes and sizes – and some of them are very collectable, reports Chris Carter.
Chess has been around for a long time. So long, in fact, that nobody is sure who first invented it – or when. Maybe it was the Indians. Then again, it could have been the Persians or the Chinese. Nobody knows. But as the famous 12th-century Lewis Chessmen on display at the British Museum and National Museum of Scotland can attest, the board game is certainly old.
Other than their extreme old age, these diminutive warriors, royals and clergy (probably from Norway) are also a good example of the range of styles (dressed as they are in medieval garb) and materials used to carve out chess sets – walrus ivory and whales’ teeth in the case of the figures found in the Western Isles.
Wood is another commonly used material, while 17th-century amber sets from Germany are at the apex of the collectable market, rare-games dealer Luke Honey tells Emma Crichton-Miller in the Financial Times’ How To Spend It magazine. One example, possibly owned by Charles I and attributed to Georg Schreiber, fetched £601,250 at Sotheby’s in 2012. Ivory is also often used.
One such set, priced at £7,900 on LukeHoney.co.uk, dates to around 1800 and depicts the Moors, stained red with cochineal dye. Their French opponents are white. As “the white side has the first move [in chess]… typically European sides are portrayed in white”, says Honey. But the historical bias doesn’t end there. A closer look reveals that the bishops are, in fact, jesters, reflecting the anticlerical feelings of the time. Politics and chess, after all, go hand in hand.
Ivory sets may draw a premium
The value of ivory sets in particular has risen due to various bans around the world on trade in ivory products. In Britain, this currently covers items made after 1947. However, in a move earlier this month, which is very likely to tighten the market further, the government said that it would extend that ban to almost all ivory products regardless of age following one of the biggest-ever responses to a public consultation – 88% of the 70,000 responses favoured an extension of the ban. The “rarest and most important items of their type” of at least 100-years old will be among the few exceptions, with their ages to be confirmed by “specialist institutions”, such as museums. That said, a date for the new rules to take effect has yet to be set.
Before then, a painted ivory chess set is expected to fetch between £4,000 and £6,000 at Bonhams in London on 24 April. Made in Rajasthan in around 1850, the finely carved pieces in this white (pictured below) versus red (above) set depict the East India Company facing “Indian forces”. The set imagines kings and queens as elephants with howdahs and rockets; bishops as camels; knights as horsemen; rooks also as elephants; and the pawns as musicians and flag-bearers.
Chess and the surrealists
“A taste for chess was considered a sign of intelligence and, for surrealist artists, a claim of continuity with other types of intelligence,” says Sotheby’s in a catalogue note for a pocket leather chess set that belonged to French surrealist artist Marcel Duchamp. Last November in New York it sold for $423,000 – far in excess of its $300,000 upper estimate. Duchamp was so enamoured with the game that he even turned professional, becoming a Master with the French Chess Federation in 1925. He famously remarked, “while all artists are not chess players, all chess players are artists”.
Duchamp might have been thinking of fellow surrealist artist Man Ray, whom he once called a “wood pusher”, says Angela MH Schuster in the Robb Report. The duo played chess on the roof of the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris for a scene in René Clair’s 1924 film Entr’acte, and the American went on to design chess sets himself.
“In time… they became works of art that were spare in design, with each piece reduced to an elemental form.” Several of Man Ray’s designs went into production. One ivory set from 1964, however, was a one-off for his wife, Juliet. It sold for €77,500 at Villa Grisebach, in Berlin, in the same month as Duchamp’s travel set. You might say the coincidence was almost surreal.
The contents of Heathrow Terminal 1 (which has been shut since 2015 for the expansion of Terminal 2) are to go under the hammer with CA Global Partners on 21 April. The auction is expected to raise “a six-figure sum” and will be held at the Thistle Hotel at Terminal 5, while bids for some items can be submitted online at Cagp.com. The lots include baggage carousels, check-in desks, 15 escalators, 2,000 security cameras, and artwork from 1959 by Polish-born painter and sculptor Stefan Knapp.
Thousands of items that made up Air Berlin’s inventory went up for auction with Hamburg-based Wilhelm Dechow in January after the German airline went bust last year. The auction took place over the course of four separate events, with the administrators apparently “positively surprised” by the level of interest received, according to Reuters.
Some of the unusual lots on offer included aeroplane trolleys that attracted bids of around €1,500, while the airline’s love-heart shaped chocolates – set to expire in July – fetched as much as €352 per box of 100. Umbrellas sold for between €30 and €40 each, while a model of a Boeing 737 plane that was almost five-metres long went for €7,800. Other mementos included beach balls sporting the Air Berlin logo.