Lewis Chessman Piece Bought for £5 Fetches £735,000 at Sotheby’s

A long-lost Lewis Chessman piece that an antiques dealer had bought for £5 in 1964 was sold for £735,000 (US$923,000) at Sotheby's in London, setting a record price for a medieval chess piece at auction.

The 8.8cm piece, made from walrus ivory, is the first of the Lewis chessmen type to emerge since the appearance of the eponymous hoard in 1831. The grandfather of the Edinburgh family bought the piece for £5 in 1964 and passed it down to the present owner. They have kept the piece in a drawer for 55 years without realising its significance until they brought it to Sotheby’s in London. The newly discovered piece is a warder, a man with helmet, shield and sword, which "has immense character and power".

Eleven pieces in the collection of National Museum of Scotland

Of the ninety-three pieces of this hoard known to us today, eleven pieces are in Edinburgh at the National Museum of Scotland, and eighty-two are in the British Museum. Millions of visitors each year visit the museums to admire the iconic chess pieces.

Part of the collection in British Museum

These chess pieces were probably made in Trondheim, Norway, 1150-1200. The Lewis hoard consists of chess pieces made of elaborately worked walrus ivory and whales' teeth in the forms of seated kings and queens, bishops, knights on their mounts, standing warders and pawns in the shape of obelisks. The hoard also includes 14 ‘tablemen’ gaming pieces and a buckle.

The sand-dunes and south shore of Uig Bay, Isle of Lewis

The chess pieces were found in the vicinity of Uig on the Isle of Lewis some time before 11 April 1831. The precise findspot seems to be a sand dune where they may have been placed in a small, drystone chamber. It is possible that they originally belonged to a merchant travelling from Norway to Ireland and they were buried for safe keeping on route to be traded in Ireland.

A Warder| Attributed to the Lewis Chessmen workshop, probably Norwegian Trondheim, 13th century

Lot no.: 7
Size: 8.8cm

  • 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

Estimate: £600,000-1,000,000
Hammer price: £600,000
Price realised: £735,000

Auction details
Auction house: Sotheby’s London
Sale: Old Master Sculpture & Works of Art
Sale date: 2 July 2019|1:30pm