Million-dollar Viking chess piece

A warder from the Lewis chess set, kept in antique dealer’s drawer, sells for almost $1 million

Lewis chess set

Photo: Sotheby’s
The chess piece, a “warder,” may be missing one eye, but he still looks like a million bucks.

Staff

In June, Sotheby’s announced that it had for auction a piece from the famous Lewis chess set. It would end up selling for £735,000 (almost $920,000).

The chess piece is part of the Lewis hoard, a collection of artifacts found in 1831 at Uig bay on the Isle of Lewis. Among the objects unearthed were 93 chess pieces making up some four chess sets—but with five missing. Of the 93 pieces, 82 are now in the British Museum in London, and 11 are in the collection of the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. They are remarkable for their detail.

The 3.5-inch “warder” is a bearded figure with a sword in his right hand and shield at his left side, and is equivalent to a rook. Like the rest of the Lewis chess pieces, it is carved from walrus ivory. Experts believe they hail from Trondheim, Norway, which in the 12th and 13th centuries was known for its carved gaming pieces. The Isle of Lewis was a Norwegian territory until 1266. One theory is that the hoard was buried there after a shipwreck.

This is the first of the missing pieces to be discovered since the original find. Since 1964, it’s been in the family of an antiques dealer in Edinburgh, who purchased it for £5, recording in the stock book for that year as “Antique Walrus tusk warrior chessman.”

According to The Guardian, a family member said it had been stored in a drawer in their grandfather’s house, with everyone unaware of its importance. “When my grandfather died, my mother inherited the chess piece,” said a family spokesperson. The family wishes to remain anonymous.

“My mother was very fond of the chessman as she admired its intricacy and quirkiness,” the spokesperson said. “She believed that it was special and thought 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.”

Alexander Kader, the Sotheby’s expert who eventually examined the piece for the family, told The Guardian that his jaw dropped when he saw it. “I said: ‘Oh my goodness, it’s one of the Lewis chessmen.’”

This article originally appeared in the July 26, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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