Highlands & Islands

Lost Lewis Chessman piece bought for £5 sells for £735,000 at auction

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionThe chess piece had been bought by an Edinburgh antiques dealer for £5 in 1964

A medieval chess piece kept in a drawer of an Edinburgh home has been sold at auction for £735,000.

Its previous owners had no idea that the object was one of the long-lost Lewis Chessmen.

The chessmen were found buried in a sand dune on the Isle of Lewis in 1831 but the whereabouts of five pieces have remained a mystery.

The Edinburgh family's grandfather, an antiques dealer, had bought the chess piece for £5 in 1964.

The new owner of the piece has not been named. Sotheby's said the price set a new record for a medieval chess piece at auction.

The Edinburgh antiques dealer had no idea of the significance of the 8.8cm piece (3.5in), made from walrus ivory, which he passed down to his family.

They have looked after it for 55 years without realising its importance, before taking it to Sotheby's auction house in London to be auctioned.

Image copyright Sotheby's
Image caption The chessmen are thought to have been made in Scandinavia, possibly Norway

The Lewis Chessmen are among the biggest draws at the British Museum and the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.

Made in Scandinavia, possibly Norway, they are seen as an "important symbol of European civilisation".

Sotheby's expert Alexander Kader, who examined the piece for the family, said his "jaw dropped" when he realised what they had in their possession.

The newly-discovered piece is a warder, a man with helmet, shield and sword, which "has immense character and power".

Image copyright Sotheby's
Image caption The identity of the new owner of the warder has not been revealed

Following the sale, Mr Kader said: "This is one of the most exciting and personal rediscoveries to have been made during my career.

"It has been such a privilege to bring this piece of history to auction and it has been amazing having him on view at Sotheby's over the last week - he has been a huge hit.

"When you hold this characterful warder in your hand or see him in the room, he has real presence."

Despite not knowing its significance, the late 12th/early 13th Century chess piece had been "treasured" by the family.

The previous owner's late mother believed it "almost had magical qualities".

Image copyright Sotheby's
Image caption The chess piece has been in the care of an Edinburgh family since the 1960s

The Lewis Chessmen set includes seated kings and queens, bishops, knights and standing warders - the medieval version of rooks on a modern chess board - and pawns.

Some 82 pieces are now in the British Museum and 11 pieces held by the National Museum of Scotland. As well as the chess pieces, the hoard includes 14 "tablemen" gaming pieces and a buckle.

Since the hoard was uncovered in 1831, one knight and four warders have been missing from the four combined chess sets.

Image copyright Sotheby's
Image caption Sotheby's said the price set a new record for a medieval chess piece at auction

The discovery of the hoard remains shrouded in mystery, with stories of it being dug up by cattle grazing on the dunes.

It is thought it was buried shortly after the objects were made, possibly by a merchant to avoid taxes after being shipwrecked, and so remained underground for 500 years.

More on this story