Lewis Chessmen: The Discovery, The Importance, And An Auction
Photo by Tristan Fewings of Sotheby’s

Lewis Chessmen: The Discovery, The Importance, And An Auction

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Imagine finding a medieval chess piece. What would you do? An antiques dealer who bought one in 1964 in Edinburgh stored it in his home without realizing its importance. After he died, his daughter inherited the piece and occasionally would admire it but still kept in tucked away in a drawer, where it was stored for 55 years, also without understanding its value as a historic artifact.

The newly discovered medieval chess piece. Photo by Tristan Fewings of Sotheby’s.

The 8.8-centimeter (3.5-inch) piece has now been identified by Sotheby’s auction house in London as an important part of a collection known as the Lewis Chessmen that were found in 1831 on the Isle of Lewis, the largest and northernmost island in the Outer Hebrides, which is west of mainland Scotland.  The British Museum in London is home to 82 of the pieces of the collection, and the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh is home to 11 more. At each museum, the chessmen are a major attraction. However, the collection has been missing five pieces.

Lewis Chessmen on display in a cabinet in 1875 in British Museum’s Medieval Gallery. Photo by Frederick York.

Carved from walrus ivory in the 12th century, the piece will go on display in Edinburgh tomorrow (June 4, 2019). It will be sold at auction on July 2 in London by Sotheby’s as part of the Old Master Sculpture and Works of Art Sale. Before the sale, the piece will be moved to London where it will again be on display. Sotheby’s estimates that the piece is worth not less than 600,000 British pounds and may bring a price as high as 1 million British pounds. This will be the first time that any of the Lewis Chessmen have ever been auctioned. (The antique dealer who bought the piece in 1964 paid only 5 British pounds for it. What a bargain!)

What are one million British pounds worth? Here’s a comparison (as of June 3, 2019):

Currency

Amount

American (U.S.) dollar

1,264,390

Brazilian real

4,954,766

Canadian dollar

1,706,276

Euro

1,131,111

Indian rupee

87,821,392

Nigerian naira

455,181,256

Norwegian krone

11,055,589

Russian rouble

82,958,555

Saudi riyal

4,741,717

Turkish lira

7,401,722

United Arab Emirates dirham

4,644,352

Venezuelan bolivar

12,628,100

The strongest evidence indicates that the Lewis Chessmen were made in medieval Norway, specifically in the city of Trondheim, which was known for its game piece artisans. Sotheby’s expert Alexander Kader, co-head of the firm’s European sculpture and works of art, spent six months authenticating the piece, which had been missing for almost 200 years. Known as a standing warder, it is a man with a helmet, shield, and sword and is the equivalent of a rook on the modern chessboard. In an interview with The Telegraph of London, Kader says that the piece is “a little bit bashed up. It has lost its left eye. But that kind of weather-beaten, weary warrior added to its charm.”

The Isle of Lewis, where the chessmen were discovered in 1831. Map by Sotheby's.

According to local history on the Isle of Lewis, which is comprised of only 683 square miles and has a population of about 20,000, the Chessmen were dug up by a cow (that some claim belonged to farmer Malcom Macleod) that was grazing on sandy dunes along a well-traveled water route between Scotland and Scandinavia. The account attributes the collection to a shipwrecked merchant who buried the pieces to avoid paying taxes on them and that they remained hidden underground for 500 years.

Replica of Lewis Chessmen for sale at National Museum of Scotland. Photo by Museum of Scotland.

Reproductions of the Lewis Chessmen are available in a variety of sizes and materials. Because the design of the Lewis Chessmen is very popular, it is the second most popular selling design of a chess set.

The long-lost standing warder of the Lewis Chessmen collection. Photo by Tristan Fewings of Sotheby’s.

Four other pieces—a knight and three other warders—are still missing, in case you have one in your desk! Don’t save it for another 200 years!

Thanks for reading! Do you like the design of the Lewis Chessmen? Is it one of your favorites?