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A (big) Check, Mate

July 18, 2019
Lewis chessman

Lewis chessman (Sotheby’s)

The Lewis chessmen are a distinctive group of 12th-century chess pieces that were made from walrus ivory and whale’s teeth.  Since their discovery in 1831, buried within a sand dune on the Isle of Lewis (the northern part of the largest island in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland), people have been fascinated by their unique craftsmanship… scholars believe that the pieces were actually made in Norway.

Today, 82 of the 93 known pieces are in the collection of the British Museum in London, (they were purchased by the museum in the late 19th Century). The other, 11 are at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.  It is widely believed that four major pieces and many pawns are still missing from the chess set.

In 1964, an antique dealer purchased a small chess piece in Scotland for £5 and put it in a drawer, where it remained until very recently.  A family member discovered the small item and took it to Sotheby’s for evaluation.  Imagine their surprise when they were told that the small (slightly beaten up) sculpture was actually one of the missing pieces from the Lewis set (a warder –the equivalent of a rook), and received an estimate of £600 – 1.0M ($670K-1.26M).  I guess the family made the right move… it was check and mate as the new owner paid £735K ($900K).