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George Dewey

Collecting Antique Chess Sets in the 20th C

Antique chess set collecting

in the twenty first century.

With the Internet now all pervasive there are opportunities for collectors of all kinds with, for example,

e-bay, (a double edged sword).

Auctions online (chancy, unless you can view in person)

Online dealers, (good, but can be pricey).

Chess set collectors have to make several decisions each time they look at an antique chess set. they are, in no particular order.

Is it desirable?

Do I want it?

Will it fit into my collection?

Is it in good condition?

If not can it be fixed, and for how much?

Can I afford it?

There are many different styles of set available, and many different kinds of collectors.

some have a theme collection, e.g. Indian sets, English sets, and so on, some collect only wooden sets, some only ivory, some collect everything they can find.

So, leaving aside the personal requirements of the individual collector, I propose to explore what kinds of set one can reasonably expect to find, where, and

how often one might get the chance to buy such a set and for how much, assuming the set is in good condition.

Also, most importantly, which sets are most desirable for 'bragging rights' with other collectors. This is an important consideration, nobody wants to spend good money for sets over several years, and then find that everyone else has better, bigger or bought the same thing more cheaply etc.

Lets start with a decent Staunton pattern set, this should be by Jaques, if you have any aspirations to be taken seriously as a collector. however a collection of non Jaques sets is just as valid, see. http://picasaweb.google.co.uk/chesspurr

A signed set in boxwood and ebony with 3 1/2" kings, weighted, in the original box with label, can be regarded as the minimum requirement, and will cost around £800 as of 2008.

Beg borrow or buy a copy of Prof Alan Fersht's monograph on Jaques sets, so you can see if what you are offered is the right set, in the right box etc.

http://picasaweb.google.co.uk/Fersht

Buy from a reputable dealer and get a receipt stating exactly what you have bought, if it turns out to be a marriage, you can take it back for a refund or swap.

If you buy off e-bay, or from a market stall in anytown, be prepared for disappointment with no chance of any recompense.

however it is possible that with the changes e-bay are proposing to the feedback system, that e-bay buying may, (and I say 'may') become less problematic.

Above is an example of a superb, top of the range Jaques Ivory 4 1/4" king set in a rosewood box, an early example and perfect, expect to pay £20,000+. (if you ever see one)

If you are a potential 'real' collector you will by now be drooling. If the above chess set leaves you cold, stop reading immediately and go and collect garden gnomes, or razor blades or some such, put one in the garden and use the other.

The picture above shows a reasonably good Barleycorn set, however the carving of the knights leaves something to be desired, however these knights are 'right' for this set.

Other sets with poor knights are the Selenus and Toy co. sets from Germany, however as this is how they were made there is nothing to be done about it.

There is only one good general guide to antique chess sets which is easily available, and that is Masterpieces. by Gareth Williams. It has information on most of the chess sets you can hope to find and quite a few you will not, and the things Gareth says are accurate as to dates and makers etc.

Other earlier books are either difficult to find,or written in a 'foreign' language (Shakpartie Durch Zeiten und Welten, 'The Hamburg chess club catalogue') or hopelessly inaccurate, (Keats, World Chessmen), or just plain hopeless, (Mackett-Beeson, Chess sets).

The best place to see sets on a weekly basis,is Portobello Market in London on a Saturday morning.

Otherwise look for sets in auction catalogues on line.

There are occasional dedicated chess sales, where well known collectors meet in the flesh, at the moment these are hosted by Mr. Luke Honey at Bonhams auctioneers.

There are various chess dealers and collectors online, and entering 'Antique chess sets' into a search engine will catch most of them.

Mr. Jon Crumiller, ( Jon's chess sets' ) stands out amongst these for several reasons, he is a collector, not a dealer, and all his collection is online and regularly updated, his descriptions are as accurate as he can make them.

http://www.crumiller.com/chess/chess_pages/jonchess.htm

The dealers captured as above are a valuable resource, but remember, the descriptions are likely to be optimistic, as are the prices, and discounts can often be negotiated.

If you would like to start a chess set collection without breaking the bank, a good representative collection can be started for a couple of thousand pounds, and this can be spread over purchases made over two or three years, so it's not beyond the means of most people.

Above is a fairly standard Old English bone set, should cost from £100 depending on size, anything under a three inch king should be regarded as too small.

What should I buy first?

Look first to buy reasonably good examples of easily acquired sets, these are, (again in no particular order, and apart from the already mentioned Staunton pattern), Barleycorn bone set, Old English bone, St. George pattern, Burmese ivory, Cantonese puzzle ball,and Indian ivory.

A word about collecting antique ivories is probably appropriate here.

collecting and owning antique ivory objet d'art is not yet illegal neither is their sale or transportation, although this is now becoming severely restricted, particularly in America.

In effect the movement of ivory in and out of both Europe and America is forbidden, there are CITES certificates which can theoretically be issued to allow this, but until someone tells the morons who work at the airports and borders this is irrelevant.

The tree huggers responsible for this state of affairs will not stop until we are all prevented from, smoking, drinking,driving and living, we will live in a perfect green paradise, but will all have died from boredom. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.

You will find some dealers sites which claim to have George Washington sets on them, this is because G.W. owned this set,

Any set which is substantially different to this should not be so described, and indicates the dealer concerned is 'fluffing' his sets and caution should be used before quoting anything said on such a site as fact.

However sets like these with contrasting brickwork on the rooks and urn stems, were made in the 18c, but also through into the 19c and guessing which is which is not easy.

This St. George pattern set above didn't sell at auction, estimated £120 -£160 and only achieved £55 on the day and consequently was marked unsold, but it's more than possible there were replacements or other faults which were not noted in the catalogue.

That is of course just one reason why you should always view and handle lots you are planning to bid on.

This handsome ivory Hastilow set would cost around £2000 at auction (£1700 was the hammer price, and commission of between 15%-30% must be added depending on which auction house you are bidding at)

no one is really sure if Hastilow really made this style of set, but once the name has appeared in print the label tends to stick. (There are serious researchers who are working on problems such as this and scholarship and knowledge moves on.)

As a very general guide, you will very rarely be offered an 18c set, most 19c sets are actually early 20c. so exercise some caution in buying, however dealers and internet sellers are all covered by the same sale of goods act that all retailers are, so make sure you get a receipt stating exactly what you have bought. If it later turns out to be substantively different to described, you can reasonably claim against them, (although this is not straightforward).

Chinese and Canton sets.

hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of these sets were imported into the UK in the 19c. and because the Victorians kept them under glass domes, (for the most part) a great many have survived, so if you like this sort of thing, (I don't)

You don't need to buy the first one you are offered, as another better one will be along in a minute.

Apart from lot 21, the above sets are reasonably common examples, buy them if you like them, but never buy a set with pieces missing, as you will never find any matching pieces, as these sets were made to suit the materials and sizes to hand at the time of making, and always vary slightly from set to set.

Try to buy Chinese sets with well made pawns, carved in the round, not hacked out as most 20c ones were.

The best way to start collecting chess sets, is to surf the net, starting with my picasa site,

http://picasaweb.google.co.uk/chessspy

then move onto my scribd site.

http://www.scribd.com/people/view/85927-frank-alan-dewey

As I stated earlier, typing 'antique chess sets' into the search engine of your choice, will return a sufficient number of relevant sites to keep you amused for weeks if not months, just don't believe everything you read.

As with any other avocation, there are highways and byways. there are for example those who only collect famous chess players signatures, and those who are interested mainly in travel sets etc.

My personal interest is turned chess pieces, but for anyone with a computer, (or access to one) there are enough collectors and dealers online to satisfy all tastes. Have fun.

Alan Dewey. 2008.

About the Author

Antiques restorer (retired)
Live in Kent England

George Dewey
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