Collectable chess boards can fetch thousands of pounds

Our antiques expert Allan Blackburn looks back at an historic past-time that has sparked a category of collectables

By Henry Widdas, Communities Content Page Manager
Thursday, 13th January 2022, 3:45 pm
This incredible set depicting the American Civil War is in my personal collection and definitely not for sale. It is worth about one thousand pounds
This incredible set depicting the American Civil War is in my personal collection and definitely not for sale. It is worth about one thousand pounds

The continuing long winter evenings make this a perfect time for enjoying family games, and it was with pleasure I read of the chess resurgence, inspired by the popular TV series ‘The Queen’s Gambit’. With sales boosted by an estimated 125%, perhaps you got a set for Christmas?

Chess transcends borders and languages, with an estimated 605 million players globally. Almost certainly the oldest skill-based game in the world, its origins are thought to have begun in India, around the 6th century.

Middle Eastern chess pieces were carved from ivory, bone, or stone. Though very rare, a few of these 7th and 8th century chess sets sometimes surface today. The top price paid was £828,750 in 2000, for a single ivory King made in Egypt or Syria for a Muslim 10th-century chess set, and bought the previous year at auction for just £1,000!

Britain popularized chess in the mid-19th century with the development of wooden sets like the ‘Staunton’, made by John Jaques in 1849 and named after the English chess pioneer Howard Staunton. They start at about £300 but can sell for more than £2,000 in top condition.

18th century sets by makers such as John Calvert Thomas and William Lund are also sought-after and fetch thousands of pounds. Lund’s feature a company stamp on the white king’s base.

My love of chess is exemplified by my treasured set from the 1970s. Not a true antique, it depicts the Unionist and Confederate armies of the American civil war in such fine and accurate detail, it is still of significant interest.

Gloria and I saw it while on holiday in Ayr in 1972. As it cost £300- a fortune to us- I regretfully said nothing. However, when we got home, Gloria confessed to having exactly the same regrets at not getting it.

In fact, so determined it should be ours, she set back off in my beloved Ford Cosworth to get it! I knew I married the right woman! It remains our pride and joy, and we’d never part with it.

Displaying chess sets can involve too much space (not to mention dusting) for all but the devoted collector. But finding that one ‘perfect’, set, as I was lucky enough to do, is often reward enough, and the ideal game for a few more weeks of long evenings.