Jun 4, 2019

A Newly Discovered Lewis Chessman Comes to Auction

By Sotheby's
One of the highlights of the Old Master Sculpture & Works of Art auction in London on 2 July will be a newly discovered Lewis Chessman. Bought for £5 by an antiques dealer in Edinburgh in the 1960s, the piece is estimated to bring £600,000-1,000,000.

R ightly regarded as the most famous chess pieces to have survived from the medieval world, the Lewis Chessmen secured their place in history when they were found in 1831 on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. The remarkable hoard constituted the greatest ever discovery of medieval chess pieces, and from the moment they were unearthed, the Lewis Chessmen evoked their own mysterious world, steeped in folklore, legend and the rich tradition of story-telling. They have continued to inspire every new generation, from the classic British 1960s children’s animated television series, The Sagas of Noggin the Nog, to, most recently, Harry Potter, in the Warner Bros. production of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, and Japanese Manga, in Hoshino Yukinobu’s Professor Munakata’s British Museum Adventure.

Probably Norwegian, Trondheim, 13th century, A Lewis chessman, a Warder. Estimate £600,000-1,000,000.

The hoard comprised 93 objects, the majority carved from walrus ivory, which could make four complete sets of figure pieces, with the exception of one Knight and four Warders. In addition to the 59 chessmen, there were 19 pawns and 14 flat, circular games pieces and one belt buckle (the only outsider in the hoard). Of those 93 pieces, 82 are in the British Museum in London and 11 are in the collection of the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, the whereabouts of the remaining five pieces unknown. Now, on 2 July in London, Sotheby’s will offer what appears to be the first additional piece from the Lewis hoard to have been discovered since 1831.

Lewis Chess pieces at the National Museum of Scotland. Credit: image © National Museums of Scotland

Acquired for £5 in 1964 by an antiques dealer in Edinburgh and passed down the same family by descent, the ‘new’ Lewis Warder will be presented with an estimate of £600,000-1,000,000 in the Old Master Sculpture & Works of Art sale. Its appearance marks the first time that one of the chessmen has ever come up for sale at auction.

The Norse Kingdom of Man and the Isles, c. 1150

Alexander Kader, Sotheby’s Co-Worldwide Head of European Sculpture & Works of Art, said: “With fond memories from my childhood of the brilliantly animated television series that paid full tribute to the inspiration of the Lewis hoard, this is one of the most exciting and personal rediscoveries to have been made during my career. Today all the chessmen are a pale ivory colour, but the new Lewis Warder’s dark tone clearly has the potential to offer valuable and fresh insight into how other Lewis chessmen may have looked in the past. 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, and just as interesting, about the next chapter in his journey now that he has been rediscovered.”

A family spokesperson 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. My mother was very fond of the Chessman as she admired its intricacy and quirkiness. She believed that it was special and thought perhaps it could even have had some magical significance. For many years it resided in a drawer in her home where it had been carefully wrapped in a small bag. From time to time, she would remove the chess piece from the drawer in order to appreciate its uniqueness.”

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