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The Lewis Chessman And The Deeply, Deeply, Unperceptive Antiques Dealer

This is a nice little story. The Lewis Chessmen are a set of chess and other game pieces that were discovered up there in porridgeland in 1831. They’re of Viking design, carved of walrus ivory. Very distinctive. Really rather famous too, it’s possible to buy replica sets to use on your own chess board – parents used to have one.

And now we get the story that one of those pieces, been missing all these years, has turned up. Excellent, isn’t that a lovely story and we’ll have the entire nation scouring the attics once again. You know, just in case anyone did leave something valuable up there.

Except, you know, there’s one person here who was deeply, deeply, unperceptive:

[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]A long-lost Viking chess piece, carved from walrus ivory and worth up to 1 million British pounds ($1.8 million), has been found in an antique dealer’s drawer.[/perfectpullquote]

Don’t we just love these stories – Antiques Roadshow has been running that long time for this reason.

[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””] They are seen as an “important symbol of European civilisation” and have also seeped into popular culture, inspiring everything from children’s show Noggin The Nog to part of the plot in Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone. Sotheby’s expert Alexander Kader, who examined the piece for the family, said that his “jaw dropped” when he realised what they had in their possession. [/perfectpullquote]

OK – but note that they are famous. And the antiques dealer? He knew roughly what it was:

[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””] 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. “It was catalogued in his purchase ledger that he had bought an ‘Antique Walrus Tusk Warrior Chessman’. “From this description it can be assumed that he was unaware he had purchased an important historic artefact. [/perfectpullquote]

Well, yes.

[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]When an antiques dealer in Scotland bought an ivory chessman for £5 ($6) in 1964, he probably had no inkling that he had taken possession of one of the most famous chess pieces in the world.[/perfectpullquote]

So here’s the thing. He knew roughly what he had. Walrus tusk, warrior, chessman. The Lewis chessmen were and are famous. Shouldn’t he have had at least an inkling of what he did have? Isn’t that sort of knowledge really part and parcel of being an antiques dealer?

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4 years ago

I suspect the old adage “if it seems too good to be true then it is too good to be true” played a part.

David Moore
David Moore
4 years ago

“Don’t we just love these stories – Antiques Roadshow has been running that long time for this reason.”

I always thought the fun with the Antiques Roadshow was seeing people who believed they had a treasure, getting told it was a worthless Chinese knock off bought for an outrageous price.

Tim Daw
4 years ago

So what was it probate value when Grandfather died and inheritance tax calculated? Funny that.

4 years ago

Tim, the really unperceptive guy was the Antique Dealer who sold it, not the Antique Dealer who bought it for £5. The buyer bought something that he (and later his daughter) liked for a fiver (yes, I know that £5 was worth more then – I was earning £6/week in 1964) assuming that it was a copy. A good decision as its value to him and his daughter far exceeded £5, regardless of any possible resale value half-a-century later. I agree that he made a naive error in assuming that the seller wouldn’t put a genuine antique on sale for… Read more »

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