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chess

THE HISTORY OF CHESS SPANS SOME 1500 YEARS.

Few board games can claim the same breadth of history as chess, which spans the globe, transcending borders and languages. It is taught to elementary school students, many of whom simply enjoy the shapes of the pieces, and also played by serious grandmasters, a title some say was first bestowed by Czar Nicholas II of Russia in 1914.

THE BEAUTY OF CHESS

Certainly the history and provenance of the set and history (in its empirical sense) as it relates to the set and its life but the history of chess itself has little place to the collector.

A set to touch, admire and perhaps even play with comes first and then the set’s history and who might have carved it, owned it or played with it. That is a true collector’s joy.

The game of chess as played in 6th-century India used a die to determine which figure would be moved. The pieces represented the king and his four military divisions: foot soldiers, cavalry, charioteers, and troops atop elephants. When the game later expanded into Persia, a wise man, which would later become what we now know as a queen, was added.

The Persian pastime soon spread to Arab nations, who checkmated the Persians in real battle in the 7th century. With the takeover came the appropriation of culture, including the passing of chess into the Arab world. The Arabs had a great deal of influence on the development of chess because of their strict Muslim beliefs that prohibited them from creating images of living things. Hence, the abstract designs of Arab chess pieces. Today, abstract design versus realistic representation is a major differentiator between collectible chess sets.

Middle Eastern chess pieces were normally carved from ivory, bone, or stone. Though they rarely come up for sale, a few of these 7th- and 8th-century chess sets still surface today. It wasn’t until the 10th century that chess boards were given dark and light squares.

Chess sets are one of the most diverse of collectibles both in terms of price (£20 to over £1million), age (1000 AD and before to 2014), style (from blocks of stone to intricate figural sets), material (from wood to gold) and size (from minute to gigantic).

Most collectors start with a playing set which has the virtue of being predominantly non-figural other than certain “bust” sets where the major pieces and the bishops are sometimes very fine carvings of real individuals. The collectors’ world is dominated by the name of Jaques and the Staunton style.

Jaques sets are the pinaccle of playing sets and Alan Fersht has published the ultimate guide to Jaques sets. From 1849 to 2014, tens of thousands of Jaques stamped and signed sets have been sold and cherished and in material as diverse as ivory (£2,000 to £120,000) Bone (status quo travelling sets) and wood (a good early club sized set will cost you up to £5000): there are opportunities for every pocket.

Then there are the Jaques predecessors and competitors such as Lund, Calvert, Hastilow, Whitty and so on.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR IN THE EARLY SETS

• Jaques Chessmen, Staunton or other- wise, are by far the most collectible and, as a consequence, the most expensive. This is not to say that there are not other Staunton chessmen that are worth collecting.

• For example, British Chess Company Xylonite chessmen quickly come to mind. However, if you are looking for one set of vintage Staunton chessmen, you must have a Jaques.

WHAT FOLLOWS IS A DISTILLATION OF THE IMPORTANT DETAILS THAT WILL SERVE AS A ROADMAP FOR ANYONE WHO IS SERIOUSLY CONTEMPLATING THIS INVESTMENT.

• Historically the key factors are: maker, age, material, size and provenance. Sets are measured by the height of the king and certainly with Staunton sets, being “weighted” is often a decided plus.

• Always keep an eye out for fake or “matched” sets where the pieces are not original or heavily and badly restored. Take advice from a specialist.

• Don’t forget also that to play or display a set you will need a chess board and often a matching board of any note and of quality construction could cost nearly as much as the set itself.

• Large Jaques boards from the 19th century can cost up to £3000 if they are stamped and some collectors buy only chess boards and game boxes (which date back to the 15th century and further). A board where the ownership was attributed to Charles I sold for in excess of £500,000 last year.

SO WHAT ABOUT THE FIGURAL SETS?

Most are for display only and playing a serious game of chess is just not possible but once you have taken the step of buying your first figural set then you have entered a magical heaven of some of the finest sculpture and art work the world has ever known.

One of the real advantages of buying a figural set is that generally price is related to the type, the material and the sheer quality of the workmanship. A copy of “Chess Men” by Keats will give you a good idea of many of the different types and get you used to the names: John Company, George III Cantonese, Macao, Kholmogory, Pulpit, Kashmir, Pepys etc

Generally the more different figures there are the higher the value (are the black and white side the same or are there two different Armies?) and whilst provenance will enhance the value it is not as important as it is with playing sets in distinguishing one set from another.

Treasured but used for so long, it isn’t surprising that they often are damaged: chipped on the pawns’ and queens’ crenellations, knights’ ears broken, bishops with missing finials, and even dog-chewed pieces where some long forgotten ancestor kept an animal at his feet as he played. Even worse are sets from a chess club, where they have been used and abused in rapid play and simuls alike, mixed and matched into different boxes without regard to parentage.

INVESTMENT POTENTIAL

Those who have invested wisely and followed the rules now have collections worth many times the purchase price but like any form of alternative investment there has to be a readjustment of prices at some time. The strength of the market is that there are a growing number of wealthy purchasers and collectors and that stimulates every sale.

However two things have occurred which are typical of a maturing market. Buyers are wiser and more careful which means that it has to be a good set to command the best prices and the greatest demand and the greater values mean the con artists are now around in numbers: Whether you are investing £500 or £500,000 it does matter that you take care and advice.

• If you are looking for collectability and investment growth potential, then you want a very early Club size wooden set or an ivory set. Ivory set prices increase exponentially with size.

• A good rule-of-thumb to follow when collecting for value rather than utility is larger is better than smaller, older is better than newer, and ivory is king.

• Original boxes and labels are important considerations when contemplating your purchase. So is condition. A well restored set of chess- men will always command a considerably higher price than a set in original condition that is damaged, has a poor finish or both.

WHAT A NEW COLLECTOR SHOULD CONSIDER WHERE TO LOOK?

Everywhere, your local antique store, online, auctions, garage sales etc. After a while you may end up buying most of your sets from a few specialist dealers. This does simplify things and specialist dealers make a living by having the better quality and more unusual items. You usually won’t get great bargains from a specialist dealer but you should be able to get a fair price and have the dealer stand behind the set and its description. This may not be the case buying from ebay or a general antique dealer. Old chess sets are not common items so you will have to be willing to put in a fair bit of effort to find antique sets.

HOW IMPORTANT IS CONDITION?

There is no set rule. A lot of sets have some damage due to their age and the amount of use they have received. Finding a mint unresotored 100+ year old set is unusual; my first reaction is to get suspicious!

A lot of the wood, ivory and bone based sets will have cracks and chips. Obviously the fewer the better. Sets can be restored and it does not detract too much from their value, if done well and not overly intrusive (like a replacement knight or king). The rarer the set and the better the price the more damage you should consider accepting. Part sets and damaged sets have usually not been restored already which means at least you know what original elements you are starting from.

THINK ABOUT STARTING TO COLLECT A CERTAIN STYLE OF SET, OR PERIOD, OR A SPECIFIC COUNTRY OF ORIGIN.

All old handmade sets are nearly unique. Even two sets from the same general pattern will differ at least slightly due to the fact that they have
been handmade and a craftsman’s eye did a lot of measurements. For example English pre- Staunton playing sets are currently underrated and valued expect the better version of these sets to be more desirable as time goes on and as the market continues to mature. Here are two St. George/Old English playing sets, the second set being particularly fine.

The quality and size of a set will have an exponential effect on its value relative to other sets of the same type and material. High quality knights (finely carved) are a good indication of a sets overall quality for a lot of playing sets.

IF YOU ARE THINKING ABOUT GETTING A SET THAT ISN’T IN PERFECT CONDITION, WHAT DO YOU LOOK FOR?

- Take out all the pieces and put them in groups: four rooks, four bishops, eight black pawns, eight white pawns, etc. Are they all there? Good. Move on. Slide your hand through four at a time and turn them up. If your set is too little, smile at it fondly and handle it any way you can: the point is to see if the felts are the same. Is it obvious that differing felts (mismatched colours, materials) mean the pieces are from different sets?

- Once you have looked on the bottoms, look for chips and splits along the whole bodies of each of the pieces. It might be that the boxwood side is pretty much undamaged. If this is the case, count yourself lucky and take a look at the ebony side. These are usually broken but that’s okay, since they also are more easily colour matched after being repaired. Boxwood is hard to match, and that’s a fact.

- There are common types of damage, depending on the piece. The pawns may have chipped collars. The bishops may have lost part of the top and finial. The rooks have damaged crenellations making them look gap-toothed. The knights’ ears are often missing. Crenellation points may have broken off the coronets of the queens. Kings’ crosses may be damaged or entirely missing. All this can be fixed.

- Of course chess collecting doesn’t have to rely on brand name to make it interesting. There are wonderful wild chess creations out there waiting to be discovered. Some even have highly detailed and artistic boards and pieces. These sets can be exciting additions to your collection.

The most important thing to remember about collecting any item is to have fun with it. Don’t worry about what other people think of your collection. Buy the boards and sets you love. Maybe you will inspire others to learn the wonderful game of chess through your unique collection.

 

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