Lost Lewis Chessmen piece bought for £5 sells for £735,000
Antiques dealer acquired rare artefact in 1964 and was mostly kept in a drawer
The rare Lewis Chessmen piece. Photograph: Tristan Fewings/Getty Images for Sotheby’s
A medieval chess piece missing for almost 200 years has sold for £735,000 (€819,000) at auction.
The piece, bought for £5 in 1964 by an antiques dealer and passed down through their family, has hit a new record for a medieval chess piece at auction, Sotheby’s in London has said.
The Lewis Chessmen – a hoard of 93 objects regarded as the most famous chess pieces to have survived from the medieval world – were discovered in 1831 on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. But the whereabouts of five pieces from the collection have remained a mystery.
A family recently learned that the piece – an 8.8cm warder made from walrus ivory from the late 12th-early 13th century – bought by their grandfather more than five decades ago was one of the missing treasures. The antiques dealer, from Edinburgh, had no idea of the significance of the piece, which was passed down through the family and mostly kept hidden away in a drawer. Having looked after it for 50 years without realising its importance, they took it to Sotheby’s auction house in London.
The Lewis Chessmen are among the biggest draws at the British Museum and the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.
Alexander Kader, Sotheby’s co-worldwide head of European sculpture and works of art, said: “This is one of the most exciting and personal rediscoveries to have been made during my career.”
He said the family, who wish to remain anonymous, were “quite amazed”. “It’s a little bit bashed up. It has lost its left eye. But that kind of weather-beaten, weary warrior added to its charm,” he said.
The Lewis Chessmen comprise of seated kings and queens, bishops, knights and standing warders and pawns. Some 82 pieces are now in the British Museum and 11 pieces held by the National Museum of Scotland. As well as the chess pieces, the hoard includes 14 “tablemen” gaming pieces and a buckle.
Since the hoard was uncovered in 1831, one knight and four warders have been missing from the four combined chess sets.
The newly discovered piece is a warder, a man with helmet, shield and sword and the equivalent of a rook on a modern chess board.
The discovery of the hoard remains “shrouded in incredible mystery” even today, with stories of it being dug up by a cow grazing on sandy banks.
It is thought it was buried, possibly by a merchant to avoid taxes after being shipwrecked, shortly after the objects were made and so remained underground for 500 years.
The previous record for a medieval chess piece was set at Sotheby’s in London in 2016, when a piece of a King made in Germany believed to be from 1300-1320, sold for £653,000. – PA