Collecting vintage chess sets

Proposed trade restrictions are shaking up the vintage game world – and many are keen to make a canny move, says Emma Crichton-Miller

1840-70 German bone chess set, £850 from Tim Millard
1840-70 German bone chess set, £850 from Tim Millard

Professor Sir Alan Fersht, chemist and master of Gonville & Caius College Cambridge, was a PhD student when he stumbled upon a vintage chess set in a shop window. Having captained the university chess team, he recognised it as one of the famous sets made between 1849 and 1939 by the leading purveyors of country-house games equipment, John Jaques of Hatton Garden, and named after arguably the world’s leading player of the 1840s, Howard Staunton. Curiosity piqued, Fersht went inside. He knew that every genuine Jaques Staunton set was accompanied by a label with a facsimile of Staunton’s signature and a number. This label, however, was written in Indian ink. Fersht realised that this was one of the early sets, from the first 500, which Staunton had signed and numbered himself. Thus began an obsession. 

Fersht has since become one of the world’s leading collectors – and experts – on these instantly recognisable sets, having established a means of dating them to within a year or two based on subtle stylistic variations. “The set everyone wants is an early wooden one [£4,000-£5,000], still in its papier-mâché casket, with the handwritten label,” he says.

c1800 French ivory Bust chess pieces, £7,900 from Luke Honey
c1800 French ivory Bust chess pieces, £7,900 from Luke Honey | Image: Luke Honey

But the market for chess sets is seeing a revolution in prices, says Antique Chess Shop’s Tim Millard, a leading dealer in pre-1920 chess sets. The value of wooden and bone sets with high-quality carving is rising swiftly due to the US ban on the trade in ivory products and proposed extension of the UK ban to cover pre‑1947 items. “Where 10 years ago early ivory sets would have fetched up to £30,000, now they fetch more like £2,000-£5,000,” says Millard. He has an elegant German bone set (1840-70) for £850.

Staunton sets are by no means the only game in town. Fersht has an 18th-century set by Jaques’ great predecessor, John Calvert (Richard Gardner Antiques has an early-19th-century example for £1,950). Thomas and William Lund (around 1804-73) are also sought-after makers, their exquisitely turned sets featuring a company stamp on the white king’s base. 

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Luke Honey, a former auction specialist and private dealer who handles rare games boards and gambling ephemera, says that chess represents 75 per cent of the vintage games market, and some collectors have up to 1,000 rare sets. There is an arcane nomenclature: Rajasthan sets, with magnificent carved elephants, which sell for up to £10,000; English Barleycorn sets from the 19th century, which fetch up to £1,000; and the French Regency pattern, named after Café de la Régence in Paris, where Franklin, Robespierre and Napoleon are all said to have played. Much sought-after are rare, intricate Spanish Pulpit sets. “They appear in English inventories in the late 18th century and it has been suggested they are either English in origin, or the work of French prisoners of war during the Napoleonic period,” Honey says. “Another possibility is that they are Russian exports from the Baltic area.” He has a c1800 bone Spanish Pulpit set for £4,900.

Honey also has an early-19th-century French ivory Bust set for £7,900. “The white side represents the French, and the red, stained in cochineal dye, the Moors. Bishops are portrayed as jesters or fools – typical in French sets as they were poking fun at the clergy. In chess, the white side has the first move, so typically European sides are portrayed in white.” This is also the case with the huge numbers of beautifully carved ivory sets made in India and China for the export market. The value of a Chinese export set (generally made in 1810-50) can vary wildly, however – while a usual price might be around £4,000, one with high-quality craftsmanship and in good condition could go for £20,000, but they can also sell for as little as £100 if, say, pieces are missing. “Subtle restoration is acceptable but missing pieces will completely devalue a set unless it is exceptionally rare,” Honey says.

17th-century amber multiple games board attributed to Georg Schreiber, sold for £601,250 at Sotheby’s
17th-century amber multiple games board attributed to Georg Schreiber, sold for £601,250 at Sotheby’s

Also popular are Bauhaus sets. Art collectors enter the market for those designed by Dalí, Fabergé or Man Ray (in 2013, a walnut and beech Man Ray set sold for £15,000 at Christie’s). And rare ceramic sets from what was once known as the Lomonosov Porcelain Factory in St Petersburg might fetch £20,000. But the top of the market are 17th-century amber sets from Germany, Honey says. In 2012 an elaborately mounted amber multiple games board, possibly once owned by Charles I and attributed to Georg Schreiber, fetched £601,250 at Sotheby’s. Millard says there is also a market for early individual chessmen – in 2016 a c1300-20 enthroned medieval king, carved in walrus ivory, sold at Sotheby’s for £653,000. 

Thomas Thomsen, an engineer and former Braun board member, once owned the world’s largest collection of antique chess sets. He first bought one in antique ivory on Portobello Road in the 1970s because he was intrigued by the challenge of repairing it. “I then bought three more in quick succession.” He explains the appeal: “As a collector, you need to have so many areas of expertise: history – there is hardly a battle that is not represented by a chess set; art history – is this an empire set or art deco set? And technical – there are turned sets, carved sets, cast sets, bone sets, amber sets, wooden sets…”

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