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A medieval chess piece, missing for almost 200 years, could fetch £1,000,000 at auction. Astoundingly, it was bought in Edinburgh for just £5 in 1964.
3 Mins

Chess Piece Bought for £5 could be worth £1m

Mark Falco
Mark Falco

It seems like stories like this happen every year. Something purchased for a nominal amount or bought on a whim at a car boot sale later turning out to be worth a fortune.

It gives us and thousands of others hope of unearthing a hidden gem every time we visit an antique dealer or traverse the aisles at fairs. Not only might you find something beautiful to add to your collection but you might uncover a diamond in the rough.

The latest discovery to make national news, a medieval chess piece, missing for almost 200 years, that could fetch £1,000,000 at auction.

Astoundingly, the figure of a warder (or rook) was bought in Edinburgh for just £5 in 1964. Since then, it has been stored in a drawer for the last 50 years.

It was originally labelled as an “antique walrus tusk warrior chessman” when bought by an antique dealer. He then passed it down through his family, who have asked to remain anonymous.

The piece was taken to Sotheby's and it will be listed in their upcoming Old Master Sculpture & Works of Art sale. It will be offered with an estimate of £600,000 to £1,000,000.

Does that seem like a lot for a chess piece to you? Let's look at what makes it so special and why it's so valuable.

The walrus ivory piece is believed to be a missing part of the famous Lewis Chessmen hoard. A famous collection of 93 objects which were discovered in 1831 on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides.

Since the initial discovery, one knight and four warders have been missing from the four combined chess sets. The whereabouts of these five pieces from the collection have remained a mystery and those that have been located reside in the British Museum.

The pieces changed hands numerous times before the British Museum secured the 81 pieces at the cost of 80 guineas with 11 others later acquired by the National Museum of Scotland.

In total, the museums hold 8 kings, 8 queens, 16 bishops, 15 knights, 12 warders and 19 pawns. There are also 14 flat circular pieces known as tabula and a buckle to secure the bag which held them.

All of the pieces are made of walrus ivory and are believed to date back to the 12th or 13th century. It is generally thought that they were made at the Norwegian carving centre of Trondheim.

The Lewis Chessmen are some of the most well-travelled objects in the whole of the British Museum’s collection. Many museums request them for a loan to their exhibitions.

Since 1995, various pieces have been shown in over 20 exhibitions across the world. Hundreds of thousands of people have been able to see them.

They are seen as an important symbol of European civilisation and have made their way into popular culture. They even featured as part of the plot to Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone.

The first film in the series used a replica of the Lewis chess set as Ron and Harry have a perilous game to overcome near the film’s exciting climax.

A queen from the Lewis chessmen by The British Museum on Sketchfab

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

"It's a little bit bashed up. It has lost its left eye. But that kind of weather-beaten, weary warrior added to its charm," he said.

Have you ever made an impressive discovery or bought something which later turned out to be worth many times more?

These collectables and antiques are hidden gems that are not impossible to find. In fact, they are closer than you think.

Maybe there is something in auction right now, just waiting to be discovered...