A Lewis chessman bought at a 1960s antique sale for £5 was today (Tuesday July 2nd) sold for £735,000 at the prestigious Sotheby’s auction house in London. The price set a new auction record for a medieval chess piece.
Sotheby’s threw their weight behind a marketing campaign to help sell the piece when it was listed for today’s sale. A video, which can be viewed here, borrows TV drama production values to inspire excitement, and the piece was displayed at Sotheby’s Edinburgh offices for a day before being taken down to London, where it has also been on display for the past week.
The auction company has not revealed who purchased the newly-discovered chessman, which had been in a collector’s drawer since the 1960s and was brought in for valuation by his family after his death.
It was described as a ‘thrilling’ find when the sale was announced, with specialists attributing the piece to Norway in the 13th century – the correct period to belong to the whole set of Lewis chessmen, six of which are on display at Museum nan Eilean in Stornoway.
It’s also in the condition expected for such a find, considering its long history. The catalogue for today’s sale said: “The condition is consistent with the ivory having been buried and excavated. There is overall old dirt, discolouration, damage and wear. The surface has a network of fine interlacing channels consistent with the Lewis Chessmen.”
The piece is a warder, one of the warriors who carry sword and shield, and some of which are seen biting the tops of their shields, identifying them as the legendary Norse ‘berserkers’. Sotheby’s said the new Lewis Warder is completely consistent not only with his fellow warders but also with the surviving group as a whole.
Alexander Kader, senior director of Sotheby’s Auction House and the company’s head of European sculpture and works of art, was called to the counter to view the piece when the Edinburgh family who owned it brought it in. He subsequently spent a year studying and analysing the chessman to be sure of its authenticity before it was offered for sale.
But he had been almost sure what it was as soon as he saw it. He told welovestornoway.com: “When I saw what it was, I was absolutely thrilled to bits. I am a medieval art specialist and this is one of the mythical objects of medieval art. I couldn’t believe I was holding it in my hand.
“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.”
The story of the chessman’s movement between the sands of Uig and the London auction house was summarised in Sotheby’s auction guide as follows:
“Probably originally part of the Lewis hoard, which was discovered at Uig bay, or near Mèalasta on the Isle of Lewis by Malcolm MacLoed of Penny Donald, before April 1831; thence possibly Roderick Pirie or Ririe, a merchant in Stornoway and T. A. Forrest, an art dealer in Edinburgh; certainly B. Dick, Edinburgh, before 1964;
“1964, purchased for £5 by an antiques dealer in Edinburgh, recorded in the stock book for that year as ‘Antique Walrus tusk warrior chessman’; thence by descent to the present owners.”
The 8.8cm tall, 96gr weight chess piece had been expected to fetch between £600,000 and £1million at today’s sale in London. If the buyer is from overseas they could face difficulties getting it out of the country, because it is made from walrus ivory and therefore subject to import restrictions where ivory movement is banned. Sotheby’s has declined to assist buyers seeking to apply for a licence to bring the piece into another country.
The picture of the piece which was sold today is from Sotheby’s.
(This story has been updated with new information following the sale today).