Insight & Analysis

Where’s the cheque, mate?

Published: Jul 2019

Bought for £5 in 1964 by an antiques dealer, a piece of a medieval chess set that had been kept in a drawer for over 50 years has recently been sold at a Sotheby’s auction for £735,000 (US$927,000, or €820,200).

The piece – known as a warder, or rook – is carved from walrus ivory and stands just 8.8cm high.

Thought to have been carved in the Trondheim area of Norway, and dating from the late 12th or early 13th century, it is now believed to be one of a hoard of 93 walrus ivory objects unearthed in Scotland’s Outer Hebridean island of Lewis in 1831.

Having lain in a drawer for 55 years, and handed down through the dealer’s family, Sotheby’s specialist Alexander Kade, told the BBC that when the family first brought the piece in for valuation, he exclaimed: “Oh my goodness, it’s one of the Lewis chessmen!”

Of the original Lewis hoard, eventually 82 pieces found their way to the British Museum in 1832 and the other 11 to the National Museum of Scotland in 1888.

“My mother was very fond of the chessman as she admired its intricacy and quirkiness,” said a family spokesperson. “She believed that it was special and thought perhaps it could even have had some magical significance.” It’s ability to turn a £5 investment into £735,000 is a good starter.

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