The Game of Chess

A French boxwood and ebony “Regence Pattern” chess set, 19th century.
As the game of chess evolved, so too did the shape and design of the chess pieces and boards. With the games growing popularity in the Western World, it was inevitable that artists and others with imagination would try to create more decorative and artistic chess sets.

By the late 1800's and early 1900's, collecting of decorative and/or artistic chess sets by some of the numerous chess players of the world was to be expected. With the advent of photography and the ability to print books and catalogs displaying different chess pieces and boards, it became easier for those who had an interest in collecting chess sets to exchange information regarding the appearance and shape of old, new and different chess sets, and thereby expand the field of chess set collecting.

Although the present game of chess has been around for over 1,000 years, collecting chess sets as an art form had only begun to flourish in the past 100 years.

An “American Civil War” resin set, 20th century.
Playing of a game similar to modern day chess apparently began in either India or Persia around the 7th or 8th century. Thereafter it spread through the Byzantine Empire and on to the rest of the Muslim World. From there the game of chess followed the trade routes across North Africa to Europe and onward. By the 15th century, the rules of play and the shapes and types of chess pieces had evolved to what most of the present world now recognizes sets with 32 pieces and a chess board with 64 alternate dark and light squares.

Amongst the earliest of books to illustrate the variety of chess sets of interest to collectors was “Chess Men”, by Donald M. Lidell, in collaboration with G.A. Pfeiffer and J. Mounoury, which was published in 1937.

In addition to illustrations of chess sets from the collections of the authors, sets from the British Museum; the Louvre; Musee de Cluny; Bibliotheque Nationale; Treasury Museum of Istanbul and the National Museum of Cairo are also displayed in this book.

As stated on the book jacket, “The authors tell in detail the history of various pieces from the earliest centuries down to the present day, showing how wars and religions, national customs, politics and even geography, have affected the design of chess men.

A Burmese pattern ivory set, circa 1810.
As the number of illustrated books regarding chess sets and chess set collections have grown, so too have the ranks of chess set collectors.

In 1984, an organization known as Chess Collectors International (CCI) was formed in Florida, U.S.A. That group now has amassed a list of over 2,000 persons in 34 different countries who, are interested in chess set collecting.

With the advent of Ebay, chess set collecting took a giant leap forward. Nearly six or seven years ago, Ebay listed less than 500 items for sale under the heading of chess. At the end of 2006, almost 8,000 items are listed for sale everyday on Ebay under the heading of chess.

The number of chess set collectors continues to grow and interest in the fascinating history of the game and its pieces appears to be spreading geometrically.

The earliest of chess pieces are most prized as antiques as well as works of art (miniature sculptures), by collectors. However, modern day sets resembling characters from well-known stories and cartoons as diverse as figures from the world of Disney, Asterix, Robin Hood, Star Wars, Star Trek, Winnie the Pooh, Alice in Wonderland, and Batman and Robin are also collected by those who prefer chess sets less expensive and more recognizable to present day generations.

A silette, catalin (form of bakelite) set, circa 1925.
The classic design of chess sets in chess tournaments around the world, is called the “Staunton” design which originated in the mid 19th century. Beautiful examples of this design exist in both wood and ivory, with the most desired sets carrying the label “Jaques - London”. While a contemporary Staunton design playing set can be purchased in plastic or wood for $10.00 to $25.00; and an original “Jaques-London” ivory set can go for as high as $5,000.00 at chess set auctions.

Ceramic figural sets with themes from history, literature, and politics can be purchased for prices from $50.00 to $500.00. However, highly collectible and high-prices examples from fine porcelain manufacturers such as Wedgwood (England), Meissen (Germany), Lomonosov (Russia) and Cybis (Unites States) have been known to sell for up to $50,000.00.

A Chinese export ivory set, early 19th century.
As with all other collectibles, as original copies increase in value, creating a reproduction or fake original has become more lucrative. Those who have an interest in spending large sums of money on chess sets should be very careful to consult with experts in the field to avoid purchasing a low-cost fake under the assumption that is a high-priced original.

The beauty and value of chess sets can be in the eye of the beholder. However, certain criteria such as workmanship, materials, condition and provenance will most certainly affect the collectibility and cost of a chess set for a collector.

As interest in collecting chess sets has grown, so has the increase in value of chess sets. Many sets purchased 30 or more years ago have increased fivefold in value in the intervening years. A Wedgwood ceramic set which sold for under $2,500.00 in 1980 has sold for over $35,000.00 in recent years. Chess sets made from ivory or tortoise shell material which is now banned from international trade, continue to grow in value as they become more scarce.

A pewter “Spanish Armada” set, circa 1960.
Many major museums around the world have chess sets and chess art amongst their collections. However, only three museums have permanent displays of chess sets open to the public. They are the Musee suisse du jeu at the Chateau de LaTour-de-Peitz on Lake Geneva in Switzerland, the Maryhill Museum of Art in Goldendale, Washington, USA and The World Chess Hall of Fame & Sidney Samole Chess Museum in Miami, Florida, USA. The author also has a private collection of over 1,000 chess sets at the Long Island Chess Museum in Commack, New York, USA, which can be visited by appointment.

An English ivory Barlycorn set, mid 19th century.
Additionally, there is a membership organization called Chess Collectors International, which lists members in over 25 different nations around the world. Additional information about these museums and Chess Collectors International, can be obtained from the author at the email address of,. Or writing to him at PO Box 166, Commack, New York, 11725, USA.

List of books:

Master Pieces by Gareth Williams ISBN: 0-670-89381-1

Chessmen by A.E.J. Mackett-Beeson ISBN: 0 7064 0050 X

Book of Chessmen by Alex Hammond Publisher: Morrison and Gibb Limited

The World of Chess by A. Saidy and N. Lessing ISBN: 0-394-48777-X

Collectors’ Blue Books Chess Sets by F. Lanier Graham Publisher: Walker and Company, New York

Schach (Original title The art of chess) by Colleen Schafroth ISBN: 3-89660-125-3

Chessmen by Frank Greygoose ISBN: 0668047666

Cultures, Chess and Art: A Collector's Odyssey Across Seven Continents: Sub-Saharan Africa,Vol.1

by Edwin S Munger, ISBN: 0964404664

Cultures, Chess & Art: Volume 2: The Americas by Edwin S Munger, ISBN: 0964404672

Chess Collectors links:

Gert Jan Slotboom chess sets


Additionally, there is a membership organization called Chess Collectors International, which lists members in over 25 different nations around the world. Additional information about these museums and Chess Collectors International, can be obtained from the author at the email address of,. Or writing to him at PO Box 166, Commack, New York, 11725, USA.