Chess is the name of the game at Bonhams auction house in London next week.

On Monday, Bonhams will offer rare chess sets from Africa, Asia, America and Europe dating from the 18th to the 20th century.

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A 19th-century whaler’s maritime traveling chess set is estimated at £900-1,200.


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Chess prices at auction have risen steadily over the past 10 years.


Chess figures ooze history, craftsmanship and fashion through the ages, and carry commemorative value. At Christie’s South Kensington in December, a souvenir chess piece made to commemorate the historic match between the British House of Commons and the U.S. House of Representatives in 1897 was sold for £4,375. The match was played over two days by cable transmission and resulted in a draw.

Chess prices at auction have risen steadily over the past 10 years, with particular demand coming from “well-heeled businessmen,” Bonhams specialist Luke Honey says. The often exquisitely sculptured figures usually aren’t bought to be played with, but for the joy of owning them, he adds.

A major highlight will be an ivory and ebony figural chess set from southern Germany from circa 1700. Crowned kings and queens are dressed in regal medieval fashion and pawns wear baggy breeches and flared-bottomed coats. The set is expected to fetch £15,000-£20,000. “It is very rare to have a complete set from so far back,” Mr. Honey says.

From circa 1780 comes a French ivory bust set that plays Europeans against the Moors. The European side is left in natural ivory, while the Moorish side is dyed red. There are charming details such as the Moorish queen wearing dangling earrings and the European king with his hair tied with a ribbon underneath his crown (estimate: £7,000-£9,000).

Another 18th-century set comes from Russia. Carved from mammoth ivory, it is valued at £2,000-£3,000. And a 19th-century English whaler’s maritime traveling set will be offered in its original mahogany box, engraved with the name of the whaling ship’s captain (estimate: £900-£1,200).

East meets West in a decorative Chinese set that was made for the export market in circa 1820. One side depicts the king and queen of England, with bishops as clergy and knights as horsemen; and the other, the Chinese emperor and empress as king and queen, bishops as mandarins and rooks as elephants with flags (estimate: £3,000-£5,000).

A fun item comes from 20th-century Africa. A 1950s hardwood tribal set shows queens bearing pots on their heads, bishops as witch doctors, knights as giraffes and pawns as tribesman (estimate: £200-£300).

There are a number of game boards that provide for both chess and backgammon. An Indian ivory, sandalwood and metal-inlaid board from circa 1900, the outside for chess and the interior for backgammon, is decorated with inlaid geometric medallions (estimate: £600-£800).

The sale includes games other than chess. One of the most interesting is “The Game of War” (circa 1887-1894). This intricate 600-piece game was designed to train British army officers. The game is played on a map with troops colored red for one force and blue for another. They include infantry, cavalry, sappers and machine-gun units (estimate: £1,500-£2,000).

“This is a rare and superb example of a late 19th-century war game,” says Mr. Honey. “It gives us a fascinating insight into the tactics of the period which ultimately culminated in the tragedy of the First World War.”

“Pank-A-Squith” (1909), a Suffragette board game, takes its name from British Suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst and the anti-Suffragist British Prime Minister Herbert Asquith. Green, white and violet were the colors of the Suffragette movement, and this is clearly represented on the board. There are 50 squares, with the aim of the game to end at the last square, which represents universal suffrage. Square six shows a Suffragette breaking the windows of the British Home Office, while square 16 has a notice, “Any player landing on this square must send a penny to Suffragette funds” (estimate: £600-£800).

Among the playing cards will be an English pack from 1892-93 decorated with royalty and flags (estimate: £2,500-£3,000) and an English twin pack from 1912, depicting Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen’s discovering of the South Pole, estimated at £400-£600.

Write to Margaret Studer at