A Newly-Discovered Lewis Chessman Appears at Auction
LONDON, 3 June 2019 – Rightly regarded as the most famous chess pieces to have survived from the medieval world, the Lewis Chessmen secured their place in history when they were found in 1831 on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. The remarkable hoard constituted the greatest ever discovery of medieval chess pieces, and from the moment they were unearthed, the Lewis Chessmen evoked their own mysterious world, steeped in folklore, legend and the rich tradition of story-telling. They have continued to inspire every new generation, from the classic British 1960s children’s animated television series, The Sagas of Noggin the Nog, to, most recently, Harry Potter, in the Warner Bros. production of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, and Japanese Manga, in Hoshino Yukinobu’s Professor Munakata’s British Museum Adventure.
The hoard comprised 93 objects, the majority carved from walrus ivory, which could make four complete sets of figure pieces, with the exception of one Knight and four Warders. In addition to the 59 chessmen, there were 19 pawns and 14 flat, circular games pieces and one belt buckle (the only outsider in the hoard). Of those 93 pieces, 82 are in the British Museum in London and 11 are in the collection of the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, the whereabouts of the remaining five pieces unknown. Now, on 2 July in London, Sotheby’s will offer what appears to be the first additional piece from the Lewis hoard to have been discovered since 1831.
Acquired for £5 in 1964 by an antiques dealer in Edinburgh and passed down the same family by descent, the ‘new’ Lewis Warder will be presented with an estimate of £600,000-1,000,000 in the Old Master Sculpture & Works of Art sale. Its appearance marks the first time that one of the chessmen has ever come up for sale at auction.
Alexander Kader, Sotheby’s Co-Worldwide Head of European Sculpture & Works of Art, said: “With fond memories from my childhood of the brilliantly animated television series that paid full tribute to the inspiration of the Lewis hoard, this is one of the most exciting and personal rediscoveries to have been made during my career. 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, and just as interesting, about the next chapter in his journey now that he has been rediscovered.”
A family spokesperson said: “My grandfather was an antiques dealer based in Edinburgh, and in 1964 he purchased an ivory chessman from another Edinburgh dealer. It was catalogued in his purchase ledger that he had bought an ‘Antique Walrus Tusk Warrior Chessman’. From this description it can be assumed that he was unaware he had purchased an important historic artefact. It was stored away in his home and then when my grandfather died my mother inherited the chess piece. My mother was very fond of the Chessman as she admired its intricacy and quirkiness. She believed that it was special and thought perhaps it could even have had some magical significance. For many years it resided in a drawer in her home where it had been carefully wrapped in a small bag. From time to time, she would remove the chess piece from the drawer in order to appreciate its uniqueness.”
The hoard was discovered on the Isle of Lewis, the westernmost of the Outer Hebrides. However, the exact spot and how remains a mystery. At some time just before April 1831 the hoard was unearthed, apparently in the sands of Uig Strand, an inlet in the north-west of the island, although a site a little further south on the same coast has been suggested.
Later accounts tell of a grazing cow accidentally revealing the chessmen. Fantastical folklore tales of ships moored in the bay, of a sailor swimming ashore clutching a bag, of murder and concealment of the hoard, of confession and a murderer hanged, all these conjectures appeared in later accounts of the find, which soon attained in the Scottish press and in legend the status of a ‘whodunnit’. Just two years after the discovery of the hoard, David Laing, a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, observed in 1833, ‘it is evident, that to serve some purpose, contradictory statements were circulated by the persons who discovered or afterward obtained possession of these Chess-men, regarding the place where the discovery was actually made’.
Early in 1831, the Lewis chessmen were shown to the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland in Edinburgh. At this time they still belonged to Roderick Pirie, a merchant of Stornoway, the capital of the Isle of Lewis. Soon after, they fell into the hands of an Edinburgh dealer, T.A. Forrest, who paid £30 for them. Forrest sold 10 of the chessmen to a Scottish antiquary, Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe. Having failed to sell the chessmen as a hoard in Scotland, he approached Frederic Madden, an enthusiastic chess player and Assistant Keeper of Manuscripts at the British Museum, to buy them for the museum, with the principal argument that such an important find must be kept together, despite that fact that he had already sold 10 pieces to Sharpe.
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