Long-lost Lewis Chessman for sale

A Lewis Chessman whose whereabouts, nay, very existence, were unknown for almost 200 years has been identified and will be sold at auction next month. Picture it: the Isle of Lewis, Outer Hebrides, April, 1831. There, on the inlet of Uig Strand, a hoard of 93 objects was unearthed under nebulous circumstances that quickly became more legend than fact. It was a collection of 93 chessmen, pawns and tablemen (circular game pieces), plus one random belt buckle. That’s enough for almost four complete sets of figure pieces. Most of them were carved out of walrus ivory, likely in Trondheim, Norway, in the 12th or 13th century.

Whatever the true story of their discovery, the Lewis Chessmen made their international debut at the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland in Edinburgh in 1831. A merchant named Roderick Pirie was the first named owner. He sold them to an Edinburgh dealer for £30. That dealer sold 10 of them to antiquary and artist Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe, and 81 of them to Frederic Madden, Assistant Keeper of Manuscripts at the British Museum. Sharpe was able to acquire an 11th piece after his original purchase. Today, Sharpe’s chessmen are part of the collection of the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. The British Museum has a total of 82 of the original 93 pieces.

But were there really only 93 pieces unearthed? The mystery attendant the find and the five figure pieces (one knight and four warders, ie, rooks in the modern game) missing to complete the four sets left open the possibility that there could be floaters out there. That possibility has now become fact as for the first time a new Lewis Chessmen Warder has emerged.

It was bought for £5 in 1964 by an Edinburgh antiques dealer. He did not realize the treasure he had found. It has been his family ever since, beloved, even revered as an artifact with almost magical properties. His grandchildren, who prefer to remain anonymous what with having hit the antiquities lottery and all, took it to Sotheby’s for appraisal.

Sotheby’s expert Alexander Kader, who examined the piece for the family, said his “jaw dropped” when he realised what they had in their possession.

“They brought it in for assessment,” he said. “That happens every day. Our doors are open for free valuations.

“We get called down to the counter and have no idea what we are going to see. More often than not, it’s not worth very much.

“I said, ‘Oh my goodness, it’s one of the Lewis Chessmen’.”

The warder is being offered for sale at Sotheby’s Old Master Sculpture & Works of Art sale on July 2nd in London. The pre-sale estimate is £600,000-1,000,000 which looks way low to me, but we’ll see. This is the first time one of the Lewis Chessmen will have appeared on the auction block. Will it come to blows between the British Museum and the National Museum of Scotland? Will a deep-pocketed private party foil them both? Man, I hope they livestream the bidding.

7 thoughts on “Long-lost Lewis Chessman for sale

  1. If this little fella –as a team member of the Lewis Chessman– is not national treasure that must not be sold, I sincerely wonder, what else is?!? :angry:

  2. Indiana Jones was right – this belongs in a museum, It shouldn’t go to some entitled boor with more money then he or she knows what to do with.

  3. The beautiful patina on this suggests that all of the other pieces in Edinburgh and London must have been heavily worked over at some point. This one looks so much better than the shiny clean state of the others.

  4. The patina is attractive, but comparing this one’s condition to the ‘clean’ ones… it looks to me like that patina is chemically active (probably mildly acidic) and is corroding the ivory. So for preservation purposes, probably best cleaned away.

  5. Never fear. This will go to aucton, a price will be established and an export ban placed on it, giving the British and Scottish Museums time to raise the required funds. Do doubt the Lottery Fund will pledge half and the rest will come from big biz and donations from the public.

    The two museums will probably then take turns in displaying it.

  6. So an Edinburgh antiques dealer buys and keeps something like this without knowing? I am neither from Edinburgh nor an antiques dealer and yet even before reading the article I was thinking ‘oh, that looks like one of those chessmen…!’.

    Treasured? I bet it was!

  7. These chess pieces were mentioned in a book by John Bellairs. The Chessmen of Doom was the title.

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