A Scottish antiques dealer paid five pounds ($7.50) for a unique and very old chess piece in 1964. Fast forward 55 years. Next month, the 900-year-old chess piece could fetch one million pounds ($1.26 million) at Sotheby’s auction house in London.
The carved object has been identified as one of the missing Lewis Chessmen. These chess pieces are some of the great artifacts from the Viking era. So what is the chessman’s story, and where has it been hiding all these years?
The Lewis Chessmen were carved to look like miniature Norse warriors in the 12th century. Standing at approximately 3.5 inches, the ivory pieces look fierce. They are sword-wielding, shield-bearing, bearded warriors. According to Sotheby’s and the Washington Post, the pieces were most likely carved by Norwegian artisans between 1150 and 1200. And then—they were hidden.
No one knows how the chess pieces ended up on Scotland’s Isle of Lewis. Were they buried there for safe-keeping? When the treasure trove of artifacts was discovered in 1831, the first Lewis Chessmen were recovered. Seventy-eight kings, queens, bishops, knights, warders (what we know as rooks and castles), and pawns were found. The chess pieces were well preserved and gave historians a good picture of medieval European chess sets. The pieces are now held in the British Museum in London and the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. But what is a game of chess without a complete set?
For centuries, five pieces have been missing from the Lewis Chess set. One knight and four warders have never been found—until now. The newly discovered warder chess piece is the first of the missing to be identified. It was a surprise to learn that the piece has been in one family’s possession for decades. The now-renowned piece was passed down through the family of the antiques dealer. The family did not realize its significance, but curators did. The discovery of the unique chess piece was, “one of the most exciting and personal rediscoveries to have been made during my career,” says Sotheby’s European sculpture expert Alexander Kader.
Will the remaining four Lewis Chessmen ever turn up? Perhaps the medieval game of chess has become a game of hide-and-seek.
(This June 3, 2019, image shows the newly discovered chess piece on display at Sotheby’s in London. The medieval chess piece is one of the famous Lewis Chessmen. It is expected to bring about $1 million when auctioned on July 2. Photo: Tristan Fewings/Sotheby’s via AP)