• STV
  • MySTV

Long-lost £1m Lewis Chessman piece found in drawer

A family was unaware of its significance for 50 years after it was bought for just £5.

Historic: The medieval chess piece could fetch £1m at auction.
Historic: The medieval chess piece could fetch £1m at auction. Sotheby’s

A medieval chess piece missing for almost 200 years has been found in a drawer in Edinburgh.

The Lewis Chessmen - a famous hoard of 93 objects - were discovered in 1831 on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides.

But the whereabouts of five pieces from the collection have remained a mystery.

A family has now been told the chess piece their grandfather bought for just £5 in 1964 is one of the missing treasures - and could be worth £1m.

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

They have looked after it for 50 years without realising its importance, before bringing it to Sotheby's auction house in London.

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

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.

"They brought it in for assessment. 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," the auction house's co-worldwide head of European sculpture and works of art said.

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

He said the family, who want to remain anonymous, were "quite amazed".

"It's a little bit bashed up. It has lost its left eye. But that kind of weather-beaten, weary warrior added to its charm," he said.

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

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

Auction: One of the long-lost Lewis Chessmen.
Auction: One of the long-lost Lewis Chessmen. Sotheby’s

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.

"It was stored away in his home and then when my grandfather died my mother inherited the chess piece.

"My mother was very fond of the chessman as she admired its intricacy and quirkiness. She believed that it was special and thought perhaps it could even have had some magical significance.

"For many years it resided in a drawer in her home where it had been carefully wrapped in a small bag. From time to time, she would remove the chess piece from the drawer in order to appreciate its uniqueness."

The Lewis Chessmen comprise of seated kings and queens, bishops, knights and standing warders 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.

'There are still four out there somewhere. It might take another 150 years for another one to pop up.'
Alexander Kader, Sotheby's expert

The newly discovered piece is a warder, a man with helmet, shield and sword and the equivalent of a rook on a modern chess board, which "has immense character and power".

The discovery of the hoard remains "shrouded in incredible mystery" even today, with stories of it being dug up by a cow grazing on sandy banks.

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

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."

He added: "There are still four out there somewhere. It might take another 150 years for another one to pop up."

The object will go on display in Edinburgh on Tuesday and in London just before the auction, with Mr Kader saying it could be bought by or be loaned to a museum.

The Lewis Warder piece will go up for auction, with an estimate of £600,000 to £1m, in the Old Master Sculpture & Works of Art sale at Sotheby's in London on July 2.

Download: The STV News app is Scotland's favourite and is available for iPhone from the App store and for Android from Google Play. Download it today and continue to enjoy STV News wherever you are.

One account. All of STV.

This field is required. That doesn't look like a valid e-mail format, please check. That e-mail's already in our system. Please try again.
ShowHide
Forgot password?
This field is required. This must be at least 6 characters long. Did you enter your details correctly?
If you've forgotten your details then use the 'Forgot password?' link.
Need to reset your password?

We'll send a link to reset your password to

We've sent you details on how to reset your password

Please check your email and follow the instructions.

Forgotten your email address?

Have you forgotten the email address that you previously joined with? Don't worry, by emailing enquiries@stv.tv we can help.

One account. All of STV.

This field is required. Please enter at least 2 characters
This field is required. Please enter at least 2 characters
This must be at least 6 characters long.
ShowHide
This field is required. This must be at least 6 characters long.
You must be over 16 to join STV.
This field is required. This doesn't appear to be a valid date
We need this to check that you live in an STV region.
This field is required. This doesn't appear to be a valid postcode
Would you like us to email you about our great shows and services from time to time?
We'll only send emails we think you'll like (see example) based on information you have supplied and shows you have watched on STV Player. For details on emails and advertising, see our STV & You page.
Would you like to receive emails from the Scottish Children's Lottery about draws, instant games and competitions?
We support the Scottish Children's Lottery (SCL), which is managed by our colleagues at STV ELM Ltd. You can find out more about the SCL on its website, including its Privacy Policy.

By continuing you agree to our Terms of Use, and understand our Privacy and Cookie Policies.

Upload Profile Picture

Please make sure your image is under 2mb in size and a valid JPG, PNG or GIF.

Are you sure?

Unfortunately, you'll be unable to access our premium content. We’ll be sorry to see you go, but if you change your mind you can rejoin us at any time.

Please verify your STV account

Please verify your STV account using the email we sent you. If you have lost the email, we can send you another one, just click the button below.

Thanks

We've sent you a new verification email.
Please check your email and follow the instructions to verify your account.

Welcome to STV
Thanks for joining us.

Oops!

Sorry, you must be at least 12 years old to place a vote for your Real Hero.

Please review our Voting Terms of Use for more information.

Oops!

Sorry! It seems that you are using a browser that is incompatible with our voting service.

To register your vote please copy the below URL in to your regular mobile browser. We recommend Google Chrome, or Safari.

http://shows.stv.tv/real-heroes/voting

Oops!

Sorry, you seem to have already voted in this category.

Thanks for voting

Now share your vote with friends on your social network

Share on twitter Share on facebook

Cast your vote

Please register or sign in to continue.

Cast your vote

This field is required. This doesn't appear to be a valid date

Cast your vote

Please fill out this form to cast your vote. As you are under 16 years old you will not create an STV account. Why do we need these details?

This field is required. Please enter at least 2 characters
This field is required. Please enter at least 2 characters
This field is required. That doesn't look like a valid e-mail format, please check.
Location This field is required.
Parental Consent This field is required.

That's you. All that's left is to click the 'Submit Vote' button below. By doing so, you confirm that you and your parent or guardian have read and accept our Voting Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Cookie policy, and that the details you have entered are correct. We'll look after them as carefully as if they were our own.