Bought for £5 in 1964: ‘Lewis Chessmen’ piece comes to auction with estimate of up to £1m at Sotheby’s

This warder, thought to be from the Lewis Chessmen hoard, will be offered with an estimate of £600,000-1m at Sotheby’s London on July 2.

Dating from the 12th and early 13th centuries, the Lewis Chessmen collection was rediscovered on Lewis in 1831 and is among the most famous archaeological finds.

Extracted from Antiques Trade Gazette | Laura Chesters

This warder, thought to be from the Lewis Chessmen hoard, will be offered with an estimate of £600,000-1m at Sotheby’s London on July 2.

Now, a piece bought in the 1960s in Edinburgh and stored in a draw for decades, is believed to have been part of the original set and is coming to auction at Sotheby’s with an estimate of £600,000-1m.

The collection of 93 walrus ivory objects now reside in UK museums and consists of 59 chessmen: eight kings, eight queens, 16 bishops, 15 knights and 12 warders (rooks), as well as 19 pawns and 14 flat, circular games pieces (tabula) and one buckle to secure the bag.

But, according to Sotheby’s, in order for these pieces to make up two complete chess sets, five pieces – one knight and four warders (rooks) – remained unaccounted for as 64 chessmen are required for two chess sets. Sotheby’s believes this rediscovered warder piece is one of the missing five.

This 3.5in (8.8cm) chess piece, thought to be from the Lewis Chessman hoard, is made of walrus ivory and probably Norwegian.

The medieval chess pieces were discovered on the Isle of Lewis, the westernmost of the Outer Hebrides c.1831. Mystery surrounds the exact details of how the hoard was found and by who, but they were shown to the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland in Edinburgh and later the group changed hands a number of times.

The British Museum, driven by assistant keeper of manuscripts at the British Museum Frederic Madden (a keen chess player), then secured 81, paying 80 guineas.

Later 11 objects were pieced together and these now reside in the National Museum of Scotland.

Origin of the collection

There are many theories to the exact origin of the collection. According to Sotheby’s, the leading theory is that they are Norwegian, and more precisely probably from Trondheim, which seems to have specialised during the 12th and 13th centuries in carving gaming pieces, often from walrus ivory. Trondheim was the seat of the archbishop of Norway, with the island of Lewis under its authority as part of the kingdom of Norway from early Viking times up to the Treaty of Perth in 1266.

A theory first put forward by Madden, and now favoured today, is that that the hoard was the stock of a trader in chess pieces buried after a shipwreck.

A detail of the warder chess piece to be offered with an estimate of £600,000-1m at Sotheby’s London on July 2.

A spokesperson for the family that has consigned the piece said: “My grandfather was an antiques dealer based in Edinburgh, and in 1964 he purchased an ivory chessman from another Edinburgh dealer. It was catalogued in his purchase ledger that he had bought an ‘Antique Walrus Tusk Warrior Chessman’.

“From this description it can be assumed that he was unaware he had purchased an important historic artefact. It was stored away in his home and then when my grandfather died my mother inherited the chess piece… For many years it resided in a drawer in her home where it had been carefully wrapped in a small bag.”

The collection is regarded as a symbol of medieval European civilisation and was included by Neil Macgregor, former director of the British Museum, in his BBC Radio 4 series, A History of the World in 100 Objects. He said that ‘if we want to visualise European society around the year 1200, we could hardly do better than look at how they play chess. And no chess pieces offer richer insights than the… Lewis Chessmen.”

Alexander Kader, Sotheby’s co-worldwide head of European sculpture and works of art, said: “There is certainly more to the story of this warder still to be told, about his life over the last 188 years since he was separated from his fellow chessmen.”

The warder will be offered on the July 2 Old Master Sculpture & Works of Art sale in London.