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NO, I didn't know either but for millions of chess lovers, London will be centre of their universe over the next two weeks as players of international standing battle it out to become a contender for the title of World Champion.

Never ones to miss a marketing opportunity, Christie's South Kensington are using the World Chess Federation's World Candidates Tournament to mount an auction of the rare and beautiful chess sets, estimates for which range from PS300 to PS25,000. It was all the excuse I needed to write about collecting them.

The interesting thing is that whilst most are obvious, there are possibly a great many ornaments standing on mantelpieces whose owners are unaware that they were originally part of a chess set.

A game of great antiquity, its precise origins obscure, chess was probably an Indian invention.

During the 6th century it was evidently part of Persian custom and culture, from where it was adopted by the occupying Arab armies in the 7th century before being carried westwards with the expanding Arab Muslim Empire across Spain and into Southern Italy.

For a non-player like me, though, it is the character and workmanship of the pieces, often miniature works of art, some of them illustrated here, that is most fascinating.

However, they can command eyewatering prices. The most expensive I''ve ever seen was a fine set carved from amber in 1616 by a man called Georg (correct) Schreiber of Konigsberg, which sold with its amber gaming board and set of amber draughtsmen for a cool PS330,000.

The chances of finding a complete set of chessmen dating from before 1750 are pretty remote these days.

More accessible are 19th century examples, although many of this vintage are based on 16th and 17th century designs.

Carved wooden pieces are the most common, although ivory, horn, bone and walrus tusks were all used.

Ceramic sets produced by such factories as Meissen, Worcester, Minton and George Tinworth''s amusing mice chessmen made by Doulton are all within reach.

In 1793, the Wedgwood factory produced a fine black and white jasperware chess set designed by the sculptor John Flaxman. Each figure was inspired by Shakespeare''s play Macbeth, with the actors John Kemble and his sister Sarah Siddons as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth being the models for the king and queen respectively.

Among the most sought after in natural material are those produced by French prisoners from the Napoleonic War.

Many were incarcerated in hulks moored in Liverpool Bay, so there might well be examples still waiting to be identified in the region.

The prisoners scrounged sheep bones from the prison kitchens and sold the products of their labour to buy extra food and other comforts.

By the early 19th century, London makers such as George Merrifield, John Calvert and William Lund were making fine ivory and wood chess men, the most elaborate being known as barleycorn sets because of their likeness to the plant.

These were followed by the Old English pattern which was simpler in design. Old English pieces also tended to be turned from one piece of wood or ivory, whereas Barleycorn comprised a number of parts which were screwed together.

The best wooden sets, made either in boxwood or ebony, are those produced in the middle of the 19th century by John Jacques to a design by Nathaniel Cook.

They were known as the Staunton chess men, named after the only English world champion, Howard Staunton. Simplest of all, and with a heavy, bulbous base, the Staunton set was adopted by serious tournament players.

Howard Staunton was a member of the St George''s Chess Club, one of the best known clubs in London, and a design bearing the club''s name also appeared at about the same time.

Signed examples of Jacques chess sets are particularly sought after, the earlier ones being the prizes. The firm continued production into the 1940s.

Travelling chess sets first appeared in the 1780s with holes in each square on the board and pegs beneath each man to hold them in place.

An early drawback, however, was that the game had to be interrupted if the board needed to be put away. Jacques remedied this in 1853 by patenting an ingenious locking device activated when the flaps of the board were folded shut.

These are known as In Statu Quo sets and were available in two sizes in both bone and ivory.

Carved figures are rare on British chess sets, manufacturers relying more on designs which could be produced on a lathe.

The opposite was true in Europe. Dieppe, the centre of the French ivory trade, was responsible for some of the best carved figures, while others came from Germany and Austria. The masters, though, were the Chinese who produced magnificent chess sets.

The best have kings and queens dressed in Imperial costumes, mounted on a pedestal in the shape of a hollow fretwork puzzle ball. Inside this was as many as seven concentric balls, each smaller than the first, carved with more fretwork and free to move within themselves, a real feat of the carver's skill.

A great many Cantonese sets were imported to this country to cater for Georgian and Regency taste.

Specially produced for Western consumption, the sets were often designed as opposing oriental armies or depicting European monarchs and generals.

Sets can be found with king and queen modelled as George III and Queen Charlotte or Napoleon and Josephine, for example. The European subjects were invariably coloured white out of flattery for the customer ... white always plays first.

The newcomer to collecting chess sets has a bewilderingly large range to choose from. Anything damaged should be avoided, while incomplete sets will also be so.

Some collectors compensate for the high prices of rare, early sets by buying individual pieces which can be picked up much more cheaply.

Learn also to recognise the difference between lathe-turned ivory chessmen and hand-carved examples. The former are uniform and bear concentric rings. The latter are never symmetrical and have detail that can only have been done by hand.

Differentiating between bone and ivory is possibly the hardest to achieve, since even the experts can be fooled.

Look for tiny pitting in the surface of bone which gather dirt, they are lacking on ivory and can be spotted using a magnifying glass. And beware plastic imitations. A hot pin is the answer: plastic melts, bone and ivory do not.

The Christie's sale is next Tuesday (March 26). The World Chess Candidates Tournament is at the Institution of Engineering and Technology until April 2. T Silversmith Rauni Higson will be giving demonstrations at Erddig Hall, Wrexham, every Saturday, up to and including November 2, except April 6, May 18, August 10, September 28 and October 5, and not as listed in last week's Weekend Post.


A large 19th century Chineseexport ivory 'puzzle-ball'' figural chess set, the kings and queens representing Imperial emperors and empresses, bishops as mandarins, the knights on horseback, the rooks as elephants. Estimate: PS8,000-12,000

An 18th century German amber chess set. Estimate: PS10,000-15,000

A late 18th Russian walrus ivory chess set depicting the Turks versus the Romans, the kings modelled seated, the bishops as elephants, knights on horseback, the rooks as ships, the pawns as foot soldiers, all in a bone veneered box. Estimate:PS10,000-15,000

A late 20th century Russian amber chess set modelled as medieval figures, the bishops as courtiers, the knights as horse''s heads, the rooks as castles, the pawns as dwarves. Estimate:PS10,000-15,000
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Daily Post (Conwy, Wales)
Date:Mar 23, 2013
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