27 May 2012

Restoring Chess Sets

For the second consecutive episode of this series on Top eBay Chess Items by Price, I short listed an auction by a seller of chess sets who goes by the nickname Chessspy (note the three 's's). While I was reviewing successful auctions that closed during the last fortnight, I noticed a number of other auctions by the same seller, then manipulated the results to produce the image below. It shows all items sold by Chessspy going back to the beginning of April.

The item that caught my attention for this current post is shown in the upper left. Its title was 'Antique Jaques Barleycorn Chess Set, #23 in Pattern Book. The ONLY known #23', subtitled 'Assessed & discussed by Alan Dewey (CHESSSPY)'. It sold for US $2000, after receiving 9 bids from 5 bidders.

Two weeks ago it was the next item, 'Antique Jaques "Anderssen" Drop-Jaw Chess Set (1860-65) w/lined Victorian case', that caught my attention. It's not that Jaques sets are particularly unusual in eBay listings -- the current list of closed auctions has 31 items -- it's rather that the descriptions of Chessspy's items indicate an expert on the subject. For example, the description of the antique Jaques barleycorn set started,

JAQUES BONE BARLEYCORN WITH 5" KINGS in accordance with JAQUES PATTERN BOOK SET STYLE #23 as identified by Professor Sir Alan Fersht

The set has been assessed by master turner & chess researcher, Alan Dewey, with recourse to the important research about Jaques non-Staunton sets by Professor Sir Alan Fersht, whose research publications and website were used with his kind and express permission.

This is the last Jaques non-Staunton bone set I intend to auction. My study of these interesting and valuable sets is finished and I am parting with all but one of the sets I acquired during that study. As I said in the auction for #17/18, I thought long and hard about this, because for research and greed reasons I am tempted to keep all my Jaques sets and try and put together a collection of sets to match each set on each page of the famous Jaques Pattern Book.

For more about the seller and his work, see Chessspy.com: 'My CHESSSPY website has articles about antique & vintage chess sets, plus the restoration process and some how-to videos plus albums of photographs -- a lot of stuff I have gathered and learned in my 25 years of working with chess sets.' Also worth noting: Chessspy on YouTube.


Later: Received a series of email messages related to this post. I can't pretend to be an expert on this historically important subject, so I'll just reproduce the most important points.

Subject: thank you
Sent: Monday, May 28, 2012 10:57 PM

A client brought your review of my EBay auctions to my attention today, and I wish to thank you for the positive assessment of my work. I should point out that I send out short notices whenever website content has been updated. You might wish to subscribe to these? The signup form is on the CONTACT ME page of my website: it's a big blue swirly button inscribed with "Click here to receive email updates". You click that button and then follow the instructions. - Best regards, Alan Dewey

Twitter @alandewey


A thing which might interest you is my article on the origin of the Staunton pattern chess piece design. I discovered that symbols very similar to the Jaques pieces were in use from 1818 in books so it seems that Jaques simply adopted these symbols which were well known to players of that time to represent on their sets for club players (who were their intended target), not the other way around (books adopting Staunton symbols) as had been thought previously: Staunton Chess Set Design [PDF]

The article above was expanded into a credible piece of research by my wife Milissa Ellison who is the brains behind the 'chessspy' team. I had originally only had this piece of photographic jiggery pokery done for me by my friend Jon Crumiller which shows the essence of the idea: picasaweb.google.com/chessspy/SymbolsFrom1820Book

You might find my stuff a little 'set' oriented but there are a few things which I had thought to publish on and haven't done anything with, for example the book Alice in Wonderland has been illustrated by over a hundred different artists some of whom seem to have used a set they owned (or had access to) in their illustrations. Teniel is the first (and some say best) who seems to have used a St George pattern set as his base for the figures. Mervyn Peake 1954 seems to have used a fairly elaborate Indian style set and others Regence and so on. This all requires a lot of research but there are a lot of 'Alice' fans out there.

I am also interested in the possibility of tracking down the personal set styles owned by some of the 'greats' of chess. Howard Staunton himself took a large St George set with him to play in Paris (1841?). Other continental and American masters of the mid to late 19th c seemed to favour the Regence style (which was very popular). It is difficult to be sure in the period before photography became popular as the artists employed to sketch players at the board were often not chess players themselves and only briefly drew in the set which might be on the table as a setting.

Staunton pattern sets don't seem to have been adopted for congress play much before about 1900 and I'm sure chess clubs kept their 'old style' sets for general play for many years. Would a player take his new prized and expensive set to a congress or would he use his old set? The Staunton pattern wasn't insisted on for use until about 1934 so some places must have still allowed other designs otherwise why legislate?


I have an email list into which people may register themselves. I send a quick note out whenever I have new website content or a new EBay auction. Our primary purpose with EBay auctions is to gain a wide audience, so as to increase awareness of my research & restoration business. Also I wish people to know that that these things -- chess sets, games, various Victoriana -- CAN be restored. Thus they do not have to sit around in deplorable condition, to be consigned to the rubbish bin within a generation or two.

Lastly I am trying to raise awareness of the turning trade as it was practiced by the bulk of the Victorian turners, viz. in the production of useful rather than strictly ornamental objects. This trade is rapidly dying. I discuss this issue here: chessspy.com/notes.htm

It is for these reasons that I also am teaching turning classes. Right now I am gearing up for a beginner's class, in which I am taking four beginners and teaching them in two days (!) to make their own chess sets, carved knights and all. Description here, entitled Beginners' Challenge: chessspy.com/classes.htm

Posted with permission.

1 comment:

fling cristen said...

The information you are providing is good about Staunton Chess Pieces