Chess is one of the oldest games of skill in the world – and likely has more collectible items than any other game. Chess seems to have spread from India into ancient Persia in the 6th century, but did not arrive in Britain until the 12th century. The famous Isle of Lewis chess set is the earliest known chess set, dating from the 1100s.
Originally, four military divisions defended the monarch: the infantry, cavalry, elephants and chariots – as seen in ChessCentral’s Charlemagne chess set. Over time the pieces were changed to fit the British feudal system and they became pawns, Knights, Bishops and Rooks.
It wasn’t until the release of the Staunton chess set design in 1849 by sports and games maker Jaques of London that chess pieces became known in the form we recognize today.
Luke Honey, chess consultant for the London auction house Bonhams, states that Knights are the most important figures to scrutinize when assessing a set. Their shape means that they cannot be turned by machine, but require a skilled craftsman.
Luke says, “One of the great attractions of chess is there is such a variety of styles and ages from which to choose. Always go for the rarest and finest carved pieces you can afford, making sure to do your homework before buying.”
A carved chess set should also be judged by the quality of the pawns. A master carver usually focused on the King and Queen, and the Knights, Bishops and Rooks were made by experienced workers. Pawns were often polished off by apprentices. Therefore, if you come across a superbly made pawn it indicates that the master carver may have completed the whole set.
He believes that 19th century chess sets are a great place to start collecting. Popular patterns such as Washington, the Edinburgh Upright, Calvert and Dublin are all available from $1,500 if complete and in good condition.
The Staunton chess sets are ideal for modern players because they are so recognizable. They were named after the 19th Century English chess pioneer Howard Staunton, and fine sets start at about $450 – but can sell for more than $3,500 in top condition.
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