Check (Your Drawer): Recently Rediscovered £1M Chess Piece May Have Icelandic Roots

Check (Your Drawer): Recently Rediscovered £1M Chess Piece May Have Icelandic Roots

Published June 5, 2019

Photos by
Sotheby's

When a Scottish antiques dealer acquired a small, worn chess-piece carved from walrus ivory for £5 GBP in 1964 (13,540 ISK in today’s money), he clearly didn’t understand the value of his new purchase. He noted the acquisition down in his records as ‘Antique Walrus Tusk Warrior Chessman’ and from then on it lived in a drawer in the family house, occasionally admired but mostly out of mind. Half a century later, his descendants have taken the hand-me-down to Sotheby’s auction house in London to be valued. The result? An expected £1m GBP expected to be raised at auction next month.

The piece is in fact part of a set – or potentially, up to 5 different sets – of chess and game pieces discovered on the Isle of Lewis off the coast of north-west Scotland in 1831. The process of this discovery is now part of local legend, with one highly-disputed rumour suggesting that the stone case containing the chess sets was uncovered by a grazing cow. However, archaeologically-minded bovines aside, the true origin of these curious pieces is shrouded in mystery, one which if solved could provide key information on the trading and diplomatic relationships between the Northern nations during medieval times.

A Medieval mystery

‘The Lewis Chessmen’, as they are commonly known, consist of 93 pieces, all intricately carved with geometric designs and exaggerated facial features. There are thoughtful queens, valiant knights on rotund horses and furious ‘warders’ (a precursor to the modern ‘rook’ piece) outfitted with distinctive shields that a few are portrayed as biting, somewhat threateningly. Researchers believe the sets were most likely produced in Trondheim, Norway in the 12th century. This is evidenced by examples of similar carving styles found in the area, and by the fact that at the time of making the Scottish Hebrides were ruled by Norway and fell under the episcopal jurisdiction of the archbishop of Trondheim. He is suspected to have been the one to have commissioned the sets, perhaps to use as lavish gifts.

Despite the majority of scholars supporting the Trondheim origin claim, there is some evidence to suggest that alternatively, Iceland may be the true source of these unique artefacts. Local chess aficionados Gudmundur G. Thorarinsson and Einar S. Einarsson have presented the case for this theory by looking to the Sagas, where mention is made several times of the use of ‘bishop’ pieces in chess. At the time that the Lewis Chessmen were created, Norway and most other countries did not use this piece, and yet the collection contains 16 bishop pieces.

While the discovery of the missing chessman has done little to shed light on the history of their construction, it is widely believed that there are a number of undiscovered pieces that would be required to make up full sets. If these are ever uncovered in the future, their location may provide the answer to this centuries-old puzzle.

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