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Lewis chess piece bought for £5 and kept in drawer sells for £735,000


A missing piece from the medieval Lewis Chessmen has been sold for £735,000 after being kept for decades in the drawer of an Edinburgh home.

After a battle between collectors at Sotheby's in London, an anonymous bidder paid the sum, a new world record for a medieval chess piece sold at auction.

The huge sum was 147,000 times the £5 the previous owner - an antiques dealer from Edinburgh - paid for it in 1964.

He had no idea of the significance of the 3.5in piece, made from walrus ivory, and catalogued in his purchase ledger that he had bought an "Antique Walrus Tusk Warrior Chessman".

The antiques deal then passed down to his family, who kept it in a draw without realising its importance, before approaching Sotheby’s.

The 13th century "warder" was the first Lewis chessman ever to come up for sale at auction and it was predicted it would fetch between £600,000 and £1 million.

The most famous chess pieces in the world, the Lewis Chessmen remained buried on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides from the 13th century until they were rediscovered in 1831.

Made in Scandinavia, possibly Norway, they are seen as an "important symbol of European civilisation". They are among the biggest draws at the British Museum and the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh but the whereabouts of five pieces - one Knight and four rooks, or warders - was a mystery.

Alexander Kader, Sotheby’s co-worldwide head of European sculpture and works of art, said his "jaw dropped" when he realised what the family had in their possession.

Mr Kader, who spent a year studying the piece, said: "This is one of the most exciting and personal rediscoveries to have been made during my career.

"It has been such a privilege to bring this piece of history to auction and it has been amazing having him on view at Sotheby’s over the last week - he has been a huge hit.

"When you hold this characterful warder in your hand or see him in the room, he has real presence."

While some Lewis warders were represented by berserkers, a type of ancient Norse warrior who went in to battle without armour, he said the piece was a "more calm looking warrior" similar to a character from from Noggin the Nog.