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War Games: Chess

Chess Is One of the World's Oldest Games, and Today Elegant and Unusual Sets Are Valued as Collectibles
Nicholas M. Dawes
From the Print Edition:
Arnold Schwarzenegger, Summer 96

(continued from page 2)

From the middle of the last century until the Second World War, thousands of Staunton sets were made by the Jaques family firm in east London. Most sets were fashioned from boxwood and ebony and fitted with weights in the bases for greater stability. The finest sets were of turned African ivory, one side stained red or in ebony, also heavily weighted.

Jaques sets are the Rolls-Royces of chess collecting, particularly those in complete, original condition made during the third quarter of the nineteenth century. It is still possible to find never-used Victorian sets purchased from fashionable London stores such as Harrods, complete with a copy of John Jaques' pamphlet "The ABC of Chess" in the firm's distinctive mahogany boxes. Many Jaques products were marked, usually with a stamp to the white king or (later) both kings, and boxes bearing labels with the trademark "Staunton."

Jaques rivals included the Victorian London firms of William Lund and Fisher, both of which stamped the ivory and wooden sets they made, which were typically in patterns rivaling the Staunton, including "Calvert," "Edinburgh," "Old English" and "Saint George." Many contemporary Continental sets were of the figural type, particularly German sets, which were typically carved from soft woods and painted or fashioned in the traditional French pattern of elaborate spool-turned design, thought to be more authentic to ancient chess pieces.

"A good Jaques Staunton set can fetch up to $4,000," according to Nic McElhatton, head of European works of art at Christie's in London and organizer of its annual chess sale, the fourth of which will be held this fall. At the 1995 sale, more than 200 lots of chess books, sets, pieces and ephemera were sold to an enthusiastic audience that McElhatton described as "international, with a strong showing of Germans and Dutch, wealthy, and overwhelmingly male."

The auction offered a number of Jaques Staunton sets, which fetched prices ranging from a few hundred dollars to over $2,000; the usual large selection of Indian and Chinese export ivory sets, the best of which sold for $3,500 despite lacking nine pieces; and an early German ivory piece in fine condition, thought to be a queen of early seventeenth century origin and Eastern influence, which sold well above estimate at $2,500.

A few modern sets were sold, including an intriguing English silver traveling set of interlocking design made to commemorate the 1972 Fischer-Spassky match, which was an excellent buy at $1,500, and a 10-year-old Meissen porcelain set in eighteenth century style, which surprised the market by selling for $10,000.

Auctions of chess pieces are rarely held outside London, where the concept was begun by Phillips Fine Arts Auctioneers eight years ago. Luke Honey, head of Phillips' works of art department, has recently reduced his chess sales from two to one a year, partly in response to competition from other auctioneers, including Christie's, but also due to decreasing demand. Auctioneers agree there are still good sets and active buyers out there. At a recent English country auction, a set estimated to sell from $300 to $500 went for more than $5,000, "but the market is very small," Honey says. Nevertheless, aspiring collectors should approach such comments with bullish intent, as the quality, scarcity and collectible potential of chess sets appear to outweigh current prices.

Any market developed to the extent of modern chess collecting is likely to precipitate fakes and forgeries. McElhatton and Honey agree that fakes have appeared only in recent years and are generally limited to pieces that have been meticulously fashioned or altered to replicate missing pieces from an otherwise complete set. Other fakes include low standard pieces or sets that have been "promoted" by the addition of a spurious signature or label, a tempting move as marks may double or triple values. "I treat every mark with suspicion," says McElhatton, who adds that seasoned collectors and dealers can always spot a phony with the aid of a magnifying glass.

The most sought-after historical sets represent topical or unique cultural events, such as those made during the Napoleonic Wars, pitting Bonaparte against Wellington or an allied general, or the famous "Communist against Capitalist" propaganda sets made in the Soviet Union during the 1930s.

Novelty sets are an eye-catching addition to modern chess design, but few have the built-in collectibility of period pieces. Commemorative cast metal sets of the Franklin Mint type commonly depict historical images and do not represent their time, so when considering acquisitions, forget Union versus Confederacy--think Cowboys and 49ers. The same applies to most currently popular sets featuring familiar characters in miniature, including "Sherlock Holmes," with pawns modeled as truncheon-wielding bobbies, and even "The Flintstones" (guess who's the king!), which evokes the 1960s.

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