Missing Lewis Chessmen could fetch £1 million at auction

Missing Lewis Chessmen could fetch £1 million at auction
Lewis Chess pieces that belong to the National Gallery of Scotland. Image © National Museums of Scotland.

Missing for nearly 200 years, one of the lost Lewis Chessmen had been living in the drawer of an Edinburgh family for years and could now sell for as much as £1 million at auction next week.

The family who brought the chess piece to Sotheby’s to have it appraised months ago inherited the little figurine from their grandfather who was an antiques dealer in Edinburgh. He bought the chess piece from another antiques dealer for just £5 in 1964 and the family had held onto it ever since having no knowledge of its origins or worth.


The found Lewis Chessmen soon to hit the auction block. Courtesy Sotheby’s.


Alexander Kader, one of Sotheby’s experts, was the one to examine the piece when the family brought it in. Kader recalls saying ‘oh my goodness, it’s one of the Lewis Chessmen’ in an interview with the BBC. ‘[The family] brought it in for assessment,’ he continued, adding that they have people come in all the time for valuations. However, things usually aren’t worth quite so much, nor are they usually so rare.

The Lewis Chessmen were discovered in 1831 on the Isle of Lewis and date back to the 12th/early 13th century but five pieces were missing. Today, the chess pieces attract visitors to the British Museum, where 82 of the pieces reside, and the National Museum of Scotland, where another 11 are held. The figurines, measuring around 8.8cm tall, are carved from walrus ivory and considered to be an ‘important symbol of European civilisation.’ The chess set has even inspirations for portions of Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone and the children’s show Noggin the Nog.

The chess pieces were supposedly uncovered by a grazing cow and the pieces have been a mystery since. Some believe the set to have been buried by a merchant after being shipwrecked in order to dodge taxes. The pieces remained underground for the next 500 years or so. The found pieces included a seated king and queen, bishops, knights, standing warders, and pawns; however, one knight and four warders were missing from the set.


Courtesy Sotheby’s.


The recently discovered piece is one of the missing warders and while it carries a large amount of cultural significance and interest, for the family, who has wished to remain anonymous, it carried a fair amount of personal value. The wife of the man who bought the piece, the grandmother of the family, treasured the piece believing it ‘almost had magical qualities.’

The chess piece will be a part of Sotheby’s London’s Old Master Sculpture & Works of Art sale on July 2nd.  Despite missing an eye and showing some wear and tear, the piece’s pre-sale estimate is set between £600,000 and £1 million, which would ‘transform’ the lives of the sellers. On June 11th, the chess piece will go on view in Edinburgh before traveling to London where it will be shown prior to the auction.

‘There are still four out there somewhere.’ Remarked Kader. ‘It might take another 150 years for another one to pop up.’