By Rebecca Knapp Adams
Published: December 27, 2007

It’s easy to forget the significance of board games now that the cool clatter of Monopoly dice has been hushed by the computer mouse in a session of desktop solitaire or by the controller in an Xbox 360 match. But chess has survived for centuries on its reputation as an intellectual pastime laden with the metaphors of politics, power and class struggle. And today, antique sets are coveted collectibles that command top dollar at auction, quickly surpassing bids for vintage models of other recreational standbys like Parcheesi and backgammon.

In the Christie’s London sale of the Dr. Jean Claude-Cholet Collection last May, ivory chessmen from Germany, circa 1870, hand sculpted in the shapes of owls and mice, earned £150,000 ($299,100), a world record for a 19th-century set. Pippa Green, a specialist in Christie’s objects department, describes the items as “beautifully carved, typical of eccentric high Victorian taste.” They were presented in a box of Coromandel ebony stamped with the retailer’s mark of Thornhill, which added historical import. More typically, 19th-century European ivory sets in good condition sell for between $5,000 and $10,000, although prices vary according to rarity and the quality of the carving.

Antique figural versions are appealing for many reasons, not least of which is the drama of pitting time-honored opponents—owls and mice, communists and capitalists, Indian soldiers and British colonists—against each other. Dublin-based collector and dealer Dermot Rochford says that 17th- and 18th-century ivory figural pieces from Germany, France and Italy, which are often finely carved and turned, are of particular interest to collectors.

Complete chess sets from the 17th century, however, are extremely rare; detailed ones were made in small numbers for the aristocracy, among the few at the time who possessed both the leisure and the money for such pursuits. When an example does surface, it can easily draw upwards of $100,000 at auction, says dealer Frank Camaratta Jr., a former tournament player who owns the House of Staunton Antiques in Toney, Alabama. Record prices for antique sets are terribly hard to establish, however, because there are so many variations in design, material and country of origin. That said, Sotheby’s is thought to have made the high price for a 17th-century model with a 1616 carved amber set, which sold in London in 1990 for £330,000 ($574,200).

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