Serious players: collecting rare chess pieces


Andy Round looks beyond chess as a game of war and discovers a peaceful beauty in the collection of rare pieces. Double click images above to see story as it was published

Forget your Geoffrey Park backgammon sets with their cognac-spillage resistant tanning processes and step away from that Asprey Monopoly set with its gold cards and silver counters. Cerebral, entertaining and in a bizarre way strangely sexy (just watch the chess sequence between Faye Dunaway and Steve McQueen in the original Thomas Crown Affair) chess is the king and queen of the gaming world.

And if you want to be chairman of the board, you should make a move at the next Bonhams auction of chess sets in London on October 13. “We are the only auction house in the world that holds dedicated sales of chess sets and games every spring and autumn,” Bonhams specialist Luke Honey tells Tatler. “That’s one reflection of its growing interest. When I started as a specialist years ago there were maybe a couple of hundred collectors on my data base, today there are more than a thousand.”

So what’s the appeal? “Chess is a huge subject encompassing an endless range of sets made from every type of substance imaginable carved into almost any design you can think of,” says Honey. “I have seen sets made from paper, nuts and bolts, bone, stone, wood, sets, bottles, Cabbage Patch dolls... I have even seen a set made from bread by concentration camp prisoners.

“However, there are strict international rules governing the sale of pieces made from material from animals on endangered species lists. For example, ivory pieces made after 1946 cannot be legitimately sold.

But, of course, one of the most important aspects of chess is that it is all about conquering your opponent, a dynamic that is applicable to any form of confrontation. Honey has seen right wing politicians against left wing, World War I Germans against the English, Arabs versus Jews and nations from the Battle of Waterloo.

“Chess pieces are miniature works of art,” says Pippa Green, chess specialist at London’s Christie’s. “That is why I love them and why they appeal to collectors who tend to seek out examples that appeal to them. They may collect a particular medium such as ivory or from a particular era or subject matter such as only Staunton sets.”

In December, she says, Christie’s will be auctioning a collection from a ‘significant German owner’. But there are still plenty of previous sales to savour. “My favourite? Well, that has to be a rare German carved ivory ‘animalier’ set from around 1870,” he says. "It was in wonderful condition and each piece exuded personality. We sold it from the collection of the late Dr Jean Claude Cholet in 2007 for £150,000.”

And this is impressive, but one of the wonderful aspects of collecting chess pieces is that entry level is very accessible. You can pick up a 19th century set for just US$100 and see prices soar to US$50,000 for good rare sets. In 2000 Christie’s sold an early Islamic chess piece for £828,000 million far outstripping its anticipated estimate of US$50,000. It was a new world record, but many experts believe the huge price was due to a bidding battle between rival Middle Eastern royal families.

Whatever. With chess the cardinal rules of collecting still apply. “Rarity and condition are vital,” says Honey. “Sets are mass produced, so one-off pieces or very limited production from, say the 17th century, is going to be more valuable and a set that’s missing pieces, unless it is one of a kind, will be devalued.”

So who are the collectors? “Interestingly not a lot of collectors play and not a lot of serious chess players are interested in antiques,” says Honey. “Generally they are mainly middle-aged men who have disposable income. Chess seems to be popular with wealthy buyers who want a US$30,000 set as a decorative item for a study and those in the worlds of investment.” Christie’s Green agrees. “Chess is a game of strategy and tends to appeal to business minds. But I have to say on one charming occasion I was served chess piece-shaped biscuits while visiting a keen collector.”

Thomas Thomsen is the president of the 450-member Chess Collectors International and a significant collector himself. He enjoys the game “but only for fun” and remembers the chess sets of his childhood that his parents left out to encourage the children play. When Thomsen went to university in the UK he bought his first set in 1969 and renovated it at weekends. Other sets quickly followed.

“I don’t know how many chess I have got now,” laughs the former scientist, engineer and retired board member of Gillette and Braun over the phone from Germany. “I counted 500 a few years ago, but I have bought more since. Which are my favourites? No, that’s like trying to pick a favourite son.” But still there are stories. “Sometimes you spend 10 years looking for a set and when you finally discover it, you find there are suddenly two or three others on the market.”

For Thomsen the appeal is inter-disciplinary. Collectors become expert in materials, the process of creation, history and art. There are millions of facets to chess. “Chess has always been popular because it’s a game that is based on intellect and not luck,” he says. “Centuries ago, knights took up chess to learn strategy and 19th century craftsmen known as turners could only obtain their master qualification by creating a chess set. Even today banks and insurance companies use chess pieces in their branding to denote strategic thinking.”

Over in the UK Sir Alan Fersht is a chemistry professor at Cambridge University, a former schoolboy champion and university chess captain who has written two books about chess and collected British sets for eight years after discovering a rare signed and numbered 19th century Staunton set “by chance without knowing any history”.

Fersht now has a collection of around 40 with the majority created by the firm of J Jaques who produced the first Staunton sets. Howard Staunton, for the non-chess minded, was an unofficial World Champion from 1843 and 1851 who personally signed the first 700 sets produced by Jaques. These designs would set the standard for pieces of the future.

“I don’t go for valuable sets,” says Fersht. “My sets are mainly of academic interest and I have used them to date and verify others. While there are several hundred collectors of sets there are many millions who would like to own an antique set for play and that will be a 19th century Jaques Staunton. My favourite set? It’s a Jaques set hand-signed by Staunton and numbered as being the eighth sold. It’s the earliest known set and in beautiful condition. Last month (September) I loaned it to an exhibition game with Kasparov.”

It seems that once you start collecting, it’s hard to stop. Cue the story of Allen Hofrichter. His 150 sets lay forgotten in a cabinet for almost 30 years after his death until a Christie’s expert discovered them. When they came to auction they sold for a total of US$360,000. Among the items were sets carved from lava, some crafted from wire by African tribesmen and another created from pfennig coins.

Hofrichter collected simply for the beauty of the pieces and not to indulge in playing. Now when was the last time you could say that about a PlayStation, Wii or Xbox?

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