Tuesday, 4 June 2019

"A Bit bashed-up but if we Say it was From a Known Find, the Value Soars"

Another 'dead dad' provenance (Ross Pilcher, 'Missing Lewis Chessmen piece found in Edinburgh family's drawer after nearly 200 years' Edinburgh Live, 3rd June 2019):
A medieval chess piece that was missing for nearly 200 years has been found sitting in the drawer of an Edinburgh family’s home and could be worth up to £1 million. The Lewis Chessmen are a famous collection of 93 objects that were discovered in 1831 on the Outer Hebridean island of Lewis. Five pieces have been thought lost with their whereabouts unknown for many years, but one found in the Scottish capital appears to be one of those. A family has been told that the piece, bought by their grandfather – an antiques dealer - for just £5 in 1964, has been in their possession after it was passed down to them. They had it for 50 years without having any idea of its significance or value before bringing to Sotheby’s auction house in London.
The object was identified as one of the Lewis Chessmen by Alexander Kader a Sotheby’s expert who said: "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.”
The family, who wish to remain anonymous, released a statement explaining how they came in to its possession and how one member believed it may have “magical properties.” “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.”
Cute, eh? This loose object surfaces out of nowhere and everybody is so sure ("looks like") that its context of deposition can be reconstructed and the object assigned a reconstructed findspot. Really? The photos show that the condition, workmanship, proportions, details all differ from the ones from the find in existing collections, so why is this assigned to the Lewis find at all? Has the material it is made from been tested for date? Why was the buyer convinced it was 'walrus' ivory, yet had not connected it with the chess pieces on display in the local museum? Most newspapers are using a front view with resin replica chess pieces in the background (more suggestive hype), the Daily Mail has a side view. And here are some views of 'warders' for comparison - Cf 116, 117 and 119.

The Lewis chessmen are thought to have been made in Norway and buried temporarily for safekeeping on the island where they were found. Now how much would an 'inferior product of a workshop in Norway found in a latrine pit from a farmstead in Trøndelag and illegally smuggled' get less than a battered dirty old piece that some bloke says "is" one of the Lewis chesspieces? Let us divide dealer's hype from what can actually be established. Without a proper collecting history, actually linking it to the 1830s find, this is just a loose geegaw.

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