Antique Chess Sets
There are not a whole lot of brick and mortar chess stores out there, so I realize we fill a very particular niche in the chess world. Because of that, we get a lot of requests for things we do not normally handle. Probably the most common? Questions about antique chess sets. How much are they worth? What are they made of? Sometimes just a search to find out a little more about a chess piece set that has been passed down in the family.
While answers are often extremely hard to come by, I thought it would be a service to write a quick explanation on why it is so difficult as well as give some suggestions for finding out more.
The problems with valuation and Antique Chess Sets
So you have antique chessmen, and you want to know what they are worth. There is good reason to want to find out – chess sets vary in value from worthless to tens of thousands of dollars in some rare instances. It is important to realize they are as much an art form as an sculpture or painting, so some of them, by the right manufacturers, can hold a great deal of value. Likewise, there are tons that are from other manufacturers with less brand recognition. The vast majority are made overseas where it is difficult, if not impossible – to track down the original artist, so a lot of guess work is involved.
I have come up with a few questions you should ask yourself when looking to value or identify antique chessmen.
Question 1: Who is the Manufacturer and Where was it made?
Unfortunately, there are literally thousands of different artisans and manufacturers that have made chess piece sets over the years. They have been made from all manner of materials; exotic woods, stone, brass, ceramic, unusual other materials. Some brands, such as Jaques of London or Drueke have some value due to the history of the company itself. More often than not, however, a chess set is a limited edition item, or even a hand-crafted item by an unknown artist. These may have skill in manufacture, and may be valuable in their own right – but certainly not to the level of those special ‘name brand’ options.
Look to see if there is a signature or brand emblem on the chess piece set. A good place to check would be under the chessboard or beneath the chess pieces. It could range from a symbol to an actual signature. If you find something, you can reach out to the company – even if the set is decades old – to see what additional information you can find out. If you are lucky, there might be a collectors market – for example for Franklin Mint chess items, or the before-mentioned Jacques of London Staunton chess pieces.
More often then not, you will not find anything without the original box the antique chess set came in or any sort of certificate the chessmen might have come with. This does not make it worthless, but without being able to track down the original manufacturer you can’t know how much it ever sold for as new. This is hugely problematic as art, and the costs of art, can be hugely subjective.
What you might think is an awesome, intricate, exclusive piece may be a copy of many produced as souvenirs overseas and sold for only tens of dollars. Sometimes it is hard to determine if an item is actually hand made or done by machine or assembly line. It’s a real problem! Unfortunately, if you can’t find the answers you might have to assume the worst.
Question 2: What are the chess pieces made out of?
Material can go a long way in determining value, especially if you do not know the manufacturer. Brass, Ivory, Jade, precious metals and exotic woods – obviously these can increase the value significantly.
Beyond that, the material can sometimes give clues to where it was manufactured. Onyx and Malachite sets are almost always from Mexico. Alabaster and Brass are from Italy. Wood chessmen are often from India.
Feel free to reach out to manufacturers of similar items – they might not be able to tell you about the specific set, but might be able to at least give you an idea about how much a set of a certain size and certain detail may cost for materials alone.
Question 3: How old is the chess set?
This is what really puts the “antique” in antique chess sets. There are chess sets many hundreds of years old. Most antique chess sets brought to us are from the past 75 years or so. If you have something that old or older, there is considerably more value.
Who do I ask these questions to?
This is the biggest issue. Most of the time you cannot answer these questions and you’re looking for an expert. Sadly, this is hard to come by – chess sets are made everywhere by every one, and no retailer can know everything. It’s often hard for us to know the differences from antique chess sets and currently produced ones!
An antique dealer is really a good place to get started – especially if it is an older set. Once you can narrow down some of the questions – where it was made, how old it is – maybe a retailer can give you some sort of range or help.
The best bet would be to contact a chess museum. They exist! For example, the long island chess museum:
Collectors in many cases know better than retailers, and they are the best resource to find. There may be other chess museums, or similar organizations, more local to you. If not, Chess Collectors International is a group of collectors – the closest thing to experts out there and the a wealth of knowledge about antique chess sets. You can find more about them through the long island chess museum or the world chess hall of fame.
Finally, there are a lot of knowledgable chess collectors out there in web forums. Search around for chess forums and you’ll find many with chess enthusiasts happy to help identify or value your antique chess set. Talkchess is just one example:
I hope you found this post informative.