Every fall brings risks to New Orleans. Will a hurricane hit us? Will the Saints have a winning football season this year? There is a gambling gene inherent in everyone who lives here. Couple that attribute with another that compels us to revere history and you’ll find a perfect antiquing combination—gaming pieces.
Chess pieces and playing cards can attract collectors to their unique histories and one-of-a-kind beauty. And while some pieces can be bought for under $100, there are game sets that can range upwards of $100,000. To the true gaming collector, you can bet these pieces are worth every penny.
The exact origin of chess itself is a guessing game. However, many historians agree it originated in India no later than the 6th century. Called chaturanga, “army game” in Sanskrit, it was condemned by religious authorities throughout history, fearing it would encourage gambling.
Despite their efforts, chess made its way through Asia and eventually to Europe sometime between the years 700 and 900, thanks to trade and war routes. The Europeans changed the original piece names, most likely from an inability to pronounce and spell Persian words. The new medieval names came to reflect their society, complete with serfs, castles, kings and queens.
But chess pieces have been found in other shapes, including abstract ivory pieces from 10th-century Egypt, which were created to avoid idolatry. Chess pieces have been found in Viking gravesites, with the oldest and largest set of chessmen on display at the British Museum in London. According to legend, a peasant found the pieces in a stone chamber on the Island of Lewis in 1831. Experts date the pieces as between 1150 and 1170 and believe they’re from Norway. Eleven pieces from the collection can be found at the Edinburgh National Museum of Scotland, while 82 of the pieces—made of walrus ivory and whales’ teeth—remain at the British Museum.
Chess pieces have been found in carved ivory, whalebone, porcelain and wood. But players can also find playing pieces or sets like the one Faberge created in silver, jasper and jade. Clearly, there is a wide range of materials and prices for available sets—if they can be found.
“Sets are harder and harder to find,” says Leslee Shapiro of Royal Antiques. “You don’t see them at all or they are incomplete.”
Antique chess pieces are currently in high demand and entire sets are even more scarce. Some sets can fetch $45,000 or more. Nick Wells of
New York’s Mallet says value can also depend on the age of the set and the set’s subject matter.
“ ‘John Company’ sets are most famous,” Wells explains. “You’ll find a King or Queen on horseback playing against Indian warriors on elephants and the Pawns would be buffalo.”
Local associates from Waldhorn and Adler believe pricing criteria for chess sets should be similar to criteria as for antiques. Buyers should look for complete sets and ones in great condition. As with antiques, age, quality, rarity and the maker are all factors.
Game tables are easier to find. Satinwood, mahogany and yew accents are all recognizable woods for early game tables. However, tables have been made in all shapes, sizes and materials.
Ace in the Hole
If you have children, it’s doubtful you’ll ever have a full deck of the same playing cards. However, you could be creative and blame it on your family’s multicultural roots—after all, a Swiss game uses 36 cards while a German game will use 32.
Deck numbers, suits and sizes have changed since the not too historically clear beginnings of cards. Believed to have arrived in Europe from Central Asia, cards are first mentioned in Spain in the 1370s. Spaniards and Italians introduced men on court (“face”) cards. But, again due to religious constriction, earlier cards would not have included depictions of faces or the like so as not to seem idolatrous. Instead, you might see ornate patterns, like the ones on rugs.
Court figures were seen sitting, standing on horses or other poses with which the game players had to be familiar. These cards would have been single-ended. Double-ended cards originated in the late 18th century. That change also brought about design change as figures on the cards lost arms or legs due to space constraints and bad copying.
A card’s look could change through the decades and each culture’s customs can be seen through the design. Suit changes—Germans use acorns, while in Italy (along the Adriatic Sea) one might find cups and swords—can also reflect the decks’ intentions. There are educational packs, leisure packs and tarot decks, which are associated with fortune-telling.
Collectors can find playing cards from special dealers more often than in antique stores. Perhaps surprisingly, antique cards can be bought for as little as $50.
“We were able to purchase an 18th-century pack of English playing cards for $350,” says Ellen Cordes of Yale University’s Beinecke Library. “Then again, there is a card here that is priceless.” The Cary Collection at the library includes medieval handpainted sets, Japanese packs printed on silk and more. In fact, it contains more than 2,600 packs of all ages and values.
Playing card values, like other gaming pieces, are based on rarity, deck completion, condition and beauty.
People who love antiques and games have met their match in collecting gaming pieces. It’s a true challenge to find complete antique sets of chess and to find the most beautiful playing card decks. But for the gambler, these are odds they are willing to take. •