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The newly discovered medieval chess piece, one of the Lewis Chessmen, had been missing for almost 200 years. Source: Courtesy of Sotheby's .

Lewis Chessman Bought for £5 Sells at Auction for £735,000


In the early 1800s, an ancient treasure washed up on the Isle of Lewis in westernmost Scotland – 78 ornately-carved chess pieces made from walrus ivory dating back to the 12 th century.  The Lewis chessmen, as they came to be known, are the most famous chessmen in the world and one of Scotland’s most prized treasures. 

Recently, another long-lost Lewis chess piece came to light; an old family heirloom that had been purchased in 1964 for £5 and stored since then in a drawer. Now, the chessman has earned the family a fortune – as it just sold at auction for £735,000 ($929,000).

Nancy Marie Brown, author of Ivory Vikings: The Mystery of the Most Famous Chessmen in the World and the Woman who Made Them, describes the precious chess pieces:

Between one and five-eighths and four inches tall, these chessmen are Norse netsuke, each face individual, each full of quirks: the kings stout and stoic, the queens grieving or aghast, the bishops moonfaced and mild. The knights are doughty, if a bit ludicrous on their cute ponies. The rooks are not castles but warriors, some going berserk, biting their shields in battle frenzy.

The Lewis chessmen ( Ninox / Flickr )

The Lewis chessmen ( Ninox / Flickr )

A Lucky Find

The BBC reports that when a family living in Edinburgh found the chess piece in a drawer, they had no idea of its significance. The family’s grandfather, who was an antiques dealer, had bought the chess piece in 1964 and it was kept in the family since then.

The chessman is a rook, which appears a stern warder. He wears a helmet and carries a sword and shield.

Highest Price for Medieval Chess Piece

The family took the chessman to Sotheby’s auction house in London to be assessed.

“Sotheby's expert Alexander Kader, who examined the piece for the family, said his "jaw dropped" when he realised what they had in their possession,” the BBC reports.

“This is one of the most exciting and personal rediscoveries to have been made during my career.”

And the excitement was well placed, as it just fetched the highest price ever paid for a medieval chess piece.

Mystery of the Lewis Chessmen Remains

While the chessmen have been endlessly studied and displayed, no one really knows who carved them, where they came from, and how they ended up on a beach in Lewis.

“There are some who say they were born in the carving workshops of Norway, others that they were created by the hand of a skilled Icelandic artisan,” reports Sotheby’s episode of Masterworks on the tale of the Lewis Chessmen.

“Were they shipwrecked on the remote Scottish island of Lewis, washed ashore and buried beneath the sandbanks, or, was there something more sinister? Fantastical tales tell of a sailor swimming ashore clutching a bag, of murder and concealment of the hoard. No one knows for sure. But since their discovery by a grazing cow, so one story goes, they have inspired creativity in generations of visitors to their modern homes – a band of brothers, except for five missing figures. Now one has returned. A man of great humanity and immense charm. Imagine the tales he could tell!”

While one missing warder is now accounted for, out of the the four combined chess sets found on the beach in the Scottish Hebrides, one knight and three warders still remain missing.

Here’s hoping they may also re-emerge in time from someone’s dusty old drawer.

Top image: The newly discovered medieval chess piece, one of the Lewis Chessmen, had been missing for almost 200 years. Source: Courtesy of Sotheby's .

By Joanna Gillan

Joanna Gillan's picture


Joanna Gillan is a Co-Owner, Editor and Writer of Ancient Origins. 

Joanna completed a Bachelor of Science (Psychology) degree in Australia and published research in the field of Educational Psychology. She has a rich and varied career, ranging from teaching... Read More

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