Chess sets: for deep thinkers or astute collectors

This marine-life themed chess set made with precious gems such as rubies, lapis and opals
sold for $130,000 in May 2013 at I.M. Chait Gallery/Auctioneers. Photo courtesy of I.M. Chait Gallery/Auctioneers and LiveAuctioneers

NEW YORK — From checkers to backgammon and Parcheesi, antique and vintage board games are a classic collectible. Perhaps the most diverse board games, in terms of form and aesthetics, are chess sets.

Chess sets have been made from a broad range of materials, including pewter, porcelain, stone, bronze, glass, wood, precious gems, amber, and many others. The pieces aren’t just black and white or shaped as your standard pawn, rook, bishop, knight, king and queen, either. They come in a variety of colors and designs, with themed chess sets reflecting scores of hobbies and areas of special interest. There are chess sets with pieces designed as sea creatures, insects, symbols of the Byzantine Empire, book characters such as Alice in Wonderland, surfboards, ocean liners, US presidents and even city skylines.

A chess set in carved Russian butterscotch amber realized $45,000 in January 2019 at Fontaine’s Auction Gallery. Photo courtesy of Fontaine’s Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

Chess sets can be highly artistic, and indeed, renowned artists have been known to design chess sets. One of the most famous was artist and avid chess player Man Ray, who fashioned his first chess set in silver plate around 1920 in New York. It was the first of several designs that, over the following decades, “developed increasingly abstract, geometric designs following his own mandate, ‘Begin with Cézanne and terminate in endgame,’” according to a November 2016 Sotheby’s auction catalog. At that sale in London, a “King” series II set by Man Ray sold for over $100,000. Reportedly, he and fellow artist Marcel Duchamp enjoyed playing chess together, and the two were among 32 artists in a New York exhibition of artist-made chess sets that Duchamp organized in 1944.

This Bauhaus chess set ‘Modell VII mit farbiger Fassung’ in painted wood went for $55,961 in December 2018 at Quittenbaum Kunstauktionen GmbH. Photo courtesy of Quittenbaum Kunstauktionen GmbH and LiveAuctioneers

Chess sets are widely collected by private collectors and museums around the world, including dedicated chess museums. The World Chess Hall of Fame in Saint Louis, Mo., opened in 1986 and has made it its mission to share the history and cultural significance of the game of chess. “The WCHOF’s collection is diverse and includes sets once owned by legendary players, mass-produced sets with lively pop culture themes, antique ivory sets, travel sets, as well as chess computers,” its website says. Examples in its collection include a Mitsui O.S.K. Lines ocean liner chess set, undated, with die-cast metal pieces in the form of the shipping company’s cargo vesselss; a 1971 cardboard set exhibiting the psychedelic art of graphic designer Peter Max; and a 20th-century mother of pearl and ivory chess set crafted as a whimsical takeoff of traditional chess pieces.

A 14th-16th century Hetian jade chess set, Ming period, earned $80,000 in January 2019 at Empire Auction House, Inc. Photo courtesy of Empire Auction House, Inc. and LiveAuctioneers.

As with any collecting, there is no one way or right way to go about collecting. When putting together a collection of chess sets, one can focus on a specific type of material, era of manufacture, style/theme, or collect across the board for a far-ranging look. A chess set collection can be well rounded without being comprehensive or massive. “It is a good idea to limit one’s scope — for the simplest of reasons, like space, time and money. But also because nobody can collect everything, even in a small field. In the end we are wise to stick to Casanov’s motto of ‘collecting beautiful moments!’” says a commentary on the online Chess Museum.

According to ChessUSA, chess sets are much an art form as painting, and with thousands of chess sets made over the centuries, beginner collectors should note that values vary significantly depending on who made the set, when and from what material. “Some brands, such as Jaques of London or Drueke have some value due to the history of the company itself,” the website commentary said. “More often than not, however, a chess set is a limited-edition item, or even a hand-crafted item by an unknown artist.”

A chess set made with silver and 18K gold fillings brought $75,000 in April 2015 at Pennington Antiques & Consignment, LLC. Photo courtesy of Pennington Antiques & Consignment, LLC and LiveAuctioneers

Chess is said to date to around the 7th century and was likely inspired by the Indian strategy game called chaturanga. Chess sets are made around the world, with the Staunton set being widely collected and the standard used in tournament play. The Staunton set was named for chess master Howard Staunton, and the first set was reportedly sold by J. Jaques in London in 1849. Today, chess sets are eminently collectible, and even for those who don’t play, they make elegant additions to the library, study or any other room deserving of a conversation piece.

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