Imagine the excitement of opening a drawer and stumbling upon something of significant importance. This is the incredible story of the humble uncovering of a missing medieval piece that remained anonymous for almost 200 years.
Perhaps the discovery illustrates that hoarding does have a kind face occasionally. Stashed in a drawer by an Edinburgh family, nobody had a clue that the object was one of the long-lost Lewis Chessmen pieces. Said piece is now set to fetch around £1m at auction.
The chess pieces were unearthed on the Isle of Lewis (Outer Hebrides archipelago west of Scotland) in 1831. However, five pieces were missing, at least up until now. Investigations reveal that the Edinburgh discovery dates back to a grandfather who bought the chess piece for the modest amount of £5 in 1964, when pounds, shillings and pennies still made up the currency.
Apparently, grandfather had no idea of the significance of the walrus ivory 3.5-inch-tall piece, which then passed down to his family. They looked after it for 55 years without realising its importance. They they decided to get it valued at Sotheby’s auction house in London.
The Jaw Dropping Response
The Lewis Chessmen have proved a major attraction at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. Symbolically, they are important in terms of early European civilisation. They also feature in popular culture, having inspired the likes of children’s show ‘Noggin the Nog’, as well as appearing as part of the plot in Harry Potter in ‘The Philosopher’s Stone.’
Alexander Kader, a Sotheby’s expert who examined the piece for the family, said his “jaw dropped” when he realised what they had in their possession. “They brought it in for assessment,” he said. “That happens every day. Our doors are open for free valuations. We get called down to the counter and have no idea what we are going to see. More often than not, it’s not worth very much.” He went on to reveal, “Oh my goodness, it’s one of the Lewis Chessmen.”
Connecting the Pieces
It seems that the late 12th, early 13th Century chess piece had been much admired by the family, although not knowing its significance. According to a family spokesperson, “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 that 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.”
A Fine and Rare Find
The British Museum is home to around 82 pieces firm the Lewis Chessmen collection, which includes kings and queens seated on thrones, in addition to knights and bishops as reinforcements. Standing warders (rooks) and the usual row of pawns form the protective frontline.
The National Museum of Scotland holds eleven of the pieces. Once combined the collection comprises four chess sets. A knight and four warders were missing from the set until the Edinburgh family learned they held one of the missing warder rooks.