The small broken bits were unrecognizable when found in the ground outside Montpelier. Might be a sewing bobbin, the archaeologists thought.
Only later did they realize what they had: tiny pieces of James Madison’s chess set, likely the very set he used to engage Thomas Jefferson in hours-long competitions that pitted two great intellects of the 18th century against each other.
With nothing more than fragments of two ivory pawns in hand, Montpelier officials began a process of research and deduction that would allow them to identify the style of Madison’s chess set and then lead them to a London auction house, where they were able to purchase a period set they believe, with fair certainty, is an exact match for Madison’s original.
“The moment we uncovered the pawns, we knew we had found something very special,” said Matthew Reeves, Montpelier’s director of archaeology. “At first we thought these might be parts of a sewing bobbin made from bone, but upon closer examination, it was clear these pieces were a treasure from the past reflecting James Madison’s intellectual pursuits and social life. Countless visitor accounts told us of James Madison’s love for a good chess match, but we didn’t know what his set looked like.”
The period set was unveiled this week in the fourth president’s Drawing Room, sitting atop one of Madison’s original gaming tables, discovered in 2009.
The hand-turned pieces are in the Old English or Washington style, known as such because George Washington also owned such a set, said Lynne Dakin Hastings, Montpelier’s vice president for museum programs.
The pieces are white and red, rather than white and black, and, as such, may seem a bit unusual to modern eyes. Both black and red pieces were in use during the period.
“This particular style of set, this Old English style, was very fashionable and very popular at the time,” Hastings said.
Montpelier officials consulted with chess scholars to determine the style of set that produced the small fragments, which were found in a trash pit. The officials concluded that Madison’s set had red pieces based on three surviving pieces at Tudor Place, a historic home in Georgetown. The pieces purportedly belonged to Madison and are said to have been given to him by Benjamin Franklin, Hastings said.
Those pieces are white and red.
With the style identified, Montpelier officials set out to find an appropriate specimen.
“We got very lucky in our ability to find this set as quickly as we did, once we confirmed what we wanted,” Hastings said.
“You might, if you were very clever, and if you were online a lot looking at major auctions, you might find two or three [such sets] a year,” she said. “They’re not exceedingly rare but they’re not very common either.”
The purchase was complicated by the composition of the pieces. The government has strict regulations governing ivory, allowing for the import of antique pieces at least 100 years old.
As such, getting the chess set into the country required a great deal of paperwork, said Michael Quinn, president of Montpelier. “They want to know this is not illegal ivory,” he said. “Clearly we passed muster because it was shipped out and is now here on display on James Madison’s Drawing Room.”
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