Lewis Chessmen Piece Could Go For $1 Million At Upcoming Auction

Jun 5, 2019
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A small carved figure sat in a drawer in Scotland for more than half a century. Next month, it may sell for more than a million dollars at auction. Sotheby's Alex Kader first received a photo of the figure last year.

ALEX KADER: And he has a big curvaceous beard and quite long hair.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

He's a soldier. He is 3 1/2 inches tall, wears a helmet, holds a sword in his right hand and a shield in his left.

KADER: It's not a big piece physically, but it has immense power. And I was immediately bowled over by it because I studied medieval art at university, and this is something which is immediately recognizable as looking like one of the Lewis chessmen.

KELLY: The Lewis chessmen - most of them were found in 1831 by a farmer in the Hebrides off the coast of Scotland. They are 12th century, made by Vikings. Nowadays, you can visit them. I've taken my boys to see them at the British Museum in London and the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.

SHAPIRO: Historians believe they are part of four distinct chessboards, but they have never had all the pieces. So what has this long-haired sword-wielding 3-inch rook been up to? Well, he was bought for less than $5 in 1964 by an Edinburgh antiques dealer.

KADER: It's passed down in the family and was brought to us by the antiques dealer's grandchildren.

KELLY: It took a year for Sotheby's to authenticate it. Alex Kader calls the process a 19th century whodunit.

KADER: I approach it very much as Sherlock Holmes would approach it.

KELLY: They had to carbon date the piece, see if it was worn away in the same way as the rest of the Lewis chessmen, make sure it wasn't a clever reproduction, have art historians examine it. The rook passed all the tests.

SHAPIRO: And Alex Kader thinks there could be more pieces out there.

KADER: We all have to live in hope, so I'm hoping that somehow or other, the others might turn up.

KELLY: Hey, fate - your move. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.