A Lewis Chessman has been found.
June 3, 2019 3:04 PM   Subscribe

In a drawer. The chessmen, one of the treasures of the British Museum, were carved from walrus ivory in Trondheim, Norway, in the 12th century. They were found on the beach in the Outer Hebrides in 1831.
posted by Bee'sWing (20 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
"Mr Kader, who has kept the discovery under wraps for six months while authenticating the find, said: "We can safely say that a million pounds will transform the seller's life."

yes, yes it does :-)
posted by nikaspark at 3:14 PM on June 3, 2019 [3 favorites]

I went to school with A. Lewis Chessman - nice guy, I doubt he's worth a million these days though.
posted by Greg_Ace at 3:27 PM on June 3, 2019 [3 favorites]

I went to school with A. Lewis Chessman

I was trying to find a video I'd seen on the walrus carving industry in Trondheim in my YouTube history--no dice, got a million hits on 'Lewis' though.
posted by Bee'sWing at 3:33 PM on June 3, 2019

Oh, good. Now I can finish that game.
posted by kyrademon at 4:20 PM on June 3, 2019 [15 favorites]

"They brought it in for assessment," he said. "That happens every day. Our doors are open for free valuations.

"We get called down to the counter and have no idea what we are going to see. More often than not, it's not worth very much.

"I said, 'Oh my goodness, it's one of the Lewis Chessmen'."

I like to imagine the Sotheby's appraiser in that moment rather resembled the "I'm very surprised right now and I may have soiled my trousers in the bargain" look that one of the Lewis king pieces has.

Passing through the gift shop after our visit to the National Museum of Scotland, I absolutely had to have the fridge magnet version of the berserker chessman, so he travelled back home with us to Canada, where he now graces our fridge in all his shield-chewing glory. The king is on the fridge, too.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 4:21 PM on June 3, 2019 [17 favorites]

Often I wonder how many things like the Lewis Chessmen or the Staffordshire Hoard are out there waiting to be found.
Once upon a time I carved a few Garden Berserkers out of basalt as gifts for my friends. Each was about a foot tall, they made good birdbath guardians.
posted by Tenuki at 4:45 PM on June 3, 2019 [13 favorites]

A family spokesman said in a statement: "My grandfather was an antiques dealer based in Edinburgh, and in 1964 he purchased an ivory chessman from another Edinburgh dealer."
I am a little surprised that two antiques dealers in Britain between them could not ID a Lewis chessman.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 4:48 PM on June 3, 2019 [6 favorites]

Each was about a foot tall, they made good birdbath guardians.

That is very, very awesome.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 4:50 PM on June 3, 2019 [3 favorites]

Weren't the Lewis Chessmen already moderately famous in 1964? It does seem a bit bizarre that it was such a casual sale.
posted by tavella at 4:57 PM on June 3, 2019

With antiquities it's always possible the real story is not the one being told. Although in this case it doesn't sound like grandpa was hiding the secret until his deathbed. Also unlike Mesoamerican or Egyptian or Middle Eastern artifacts, it's unlikely that one of these chessmen was illegally procured from its home country.
posted by Nelson at 6:32 PM on June 3, 2019 [1 favorite]

I'm wondering if the dealers thought it was a copy? They wouldn't have access to the sort of technology that can identify how old the whale tusk was and if it matched the isotope composition of the others, etc. I could see a nice 19th century copy being worth $100-$150, which is about what 4 pounds would be today.
posted by tavella at 7:00 PM on June 3, 2019 [3 favorites]

Nelson, wouldn't their "native country" be Great Britain, since that's where they were found in 1831, and five pieces were apparently missing at the time? Perhaps illegally obtained, yes, but it seems they stayed home.
posted by lhauser at 7:01 PM on June 3, 2019

posted by not_the_water at 8:04 PM on June 3, 2019 [1 favorite]

I’ve never heard of any of this before, and it’s so cool! Excellent post.
posted by lazaruslong at 8:42 PM on June 3, 2019

I want Garden Beserkers to guard my zinnias!

All I have is one of the little replicas from the British Museum, hanging out with the Goblin King and a rubber ducky in my office.
posted by PussKillian at 6:46 AM on June 4, 2019

I have a memory of reading that part of the base of the Cloister's Cross was once seen but then disappeared. The details (last sighting in Belgium?) escape me at the moment, but the notion of changing upon it unindentified, unwanted, undervalued in some antiques emporium has from time to time crossed my daydreams.

(For more, see Thomas Hoving King of the Confessors. A fun read, and possibly even true.)

I am a little surprised that two antiques dealers in Britain between them could not ID a Lewis chessman.

Different areas of expertise, possibly? Pottery specialist offloading part of a job lot to an asian dealer? And is it just me, or does the lost now found look decidedly in worse shape than his friends and enemies?
posted by BWA at 10:25 AM on June 4, 2019

Strangely, the guy from Sothebys who was just interviewed on the TV news said: “It looks like a Lewis Chessman, and it feels like one, and it has a Scottish provenance, and that’s good enough for me.” Which seemed remarkably lackadaisical way of making a £1m valuation. I’m assuming he cut out some detail, otherwise I’m just off to take up carving...
posted by penguin pie at 11:30 AM on June 4, 2019 [1 favorite]

... that does sound pretty thin. But that wouldn't take six months, so I'm assuming that *some* scientific testing went down. But definitely a caveat in my head until the British Museum or National Museum of Scotland vet the piece.
posted by tavella at 12:17 PM on June 4, 2019

I had the privilege of seeing the new chessman on display yesterday, and hearing a lecture by the Sotheby's expert who identified it. So I can now add some extra detail to answer some of the questions above.

I am a little surprised that two antiques dealers in Britain between them could not ID a Lewis chessman.

It's less surprising when you see it. The new piece is much darker than the others, which may be a remnant of the original staining that was used to distinguish the 'white' from the 'black' pieces. (The other chessmen were cleaned in the early 20th century, so are probably much lighter now than they would originally have been.) If I'd seen it in an antique shop, I might well have assumed it was a modern copy of one of the Lewis chessmen. Or if I'd been the antique dealer who bought it, I might have put it to one side awaiting further research.

I'm assuming that *some* scientific testing went down.

Yes, it's been radiocarbon-dated, with two separate scientific reports: one giving a date range of 1328-1434, the other a date-range of 1283-1479. So it's hard to see how it could be a modern forgery, unless we suppose that the forger somehow managed to get hold of a piece of medieval walrus ivory. However, the Lewis chessmen are generally thought to be late 12th-century. So either the accepted dating is wrong by about 80-100 years, or else this new piece comes from a different source and not from the Lewis hoard at all (which is hard to believe, but not impossible).

Incidentally, there is a theory that the Lewis chessmen were carved by a female artist, Margret the Adroit, who is known to have worked in walrus ivory and is said in the thirteenth-century Old Norse Saga of Bishop Páll to have been 'the most skilled carver in all Iceland'. Which, well, how can you prove it, but I want to believe it's true.
posted by verstegan at 11:34 AM on June 28, 2019 [2 favorites]

Thanks for the update, verstegan! I suppose it wouldn't be impossible for some forger to find an old, damaged medieval ivory piece and recarve it into a fake chessman, but seems unlikely the forger would sell for so cheap and then sit around for 50 years in a drawer, assuming the family story is true. Have the museum-held chessmen ever been carbon dated?
posted by tavella at 1:01 PM on June 28, 2019

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