My son and I have really enjoyed collecting chess sets and related items as a hobby and have met some great people in the process. From our experiences here are a few thoughts which we hope will be useful to others, particularly new collectors. We have had a few setbacks and made a few mistakes along the way, but that is part of the game!
1. Set yourself a budget and try to stick to it. The price range that sets cover is huge; whatever sector you will be buying in, it is nearly always better to buy fewer higher quality items than a larger number of lower quality items. There is quite a lot to learn so its better to make mistakes on the less expensive sets and gain some experience before making large purchases.
2. Be very picky, look for complete sets when possible in good order, and inspect each piece individually. There is nothing worse than getting home and finding that you missed something, or finding replacement pieces in a set. If buying online try to get a series of photos that show all the pieces, so you can compare bishops etc.
3. Be patient, wait for the right sets to come up. You may have to pay a little more for the better sets but in general they will appreciate better as well. Some sets are now so rare you will probably only get one chance to acquire them. It very difficult to get a good representative set of every type of set unless you have a very healthy bank account. If you find a better example of a set you already have it is worth considering purchasing the new set and selling the original to offset some of the cost.
4. Where to look? Everywhere, your local antique store, online, auctions, garage sales etc. After a while you may end up buying most of your sets from a few specialists dealers. This does simplify things and specialist dealers make a living by having the better quality and more unusual items. You usually won't get great bargains from a specialist dealer but you should be able to get a fair price and have the dealer stand behind the set and its description. This may not be he case buying from ebay or a general antique dealer. Old chess sets are not common items so you will have to be willing to put in a far bit of effort to find antique sets.
5. How important is condition? There is no set rule. A lot of sets have some damage due to their age and the amount of use they have received. Finding a mint unresotored 100+ year old set is unusual; my first reaction is to get suspicious! A lot of the wood, ivory and bone based sets will have cracks and chips. Obviously the fewer the better. Sets can be restored and it does not detract too much from their value, if done well and not overly instrusive (like a replacement knight or king). The rarer the set and the better the price the more damage you should consider accepting. Part sets and damaged sets have usually not been restored already which means at least you know what original elements you are starting from.
6. Reference material, get as many of the collector books as you can, get old chess auction catalogues (each year a few auctions are held worldwide) from the major auction houses and join the CCI (Chess Collectors International), they provide a useful newsletter. They also have meetings in different locations each year. View as many collections as you can (this is not an easy task), many of the larger collectors are wary of exposing their collections due to security concerns. Some museums house collections as well such as the Maryhill Museum Of Art
7. Recent Reference books: Victor Keats - Chessmen for Collectors and Gareth Williams - Master Pieces
8. Think about starting to collect a certain style of set, or period, or a specific country of origin. All old handmade sets are nearly unique. Even two sets from the same general pattern will differ at least slightly due to the fact that they have been handmade and a craftsman's eye did a lot of measurements. For example I think English pre-Staunton playing sets are currently underrated and valued and I expect the better version of these sets to be more desirable as time goes on and as the market continues to mature. Here are two St. George/Old English playing sets, the second set being particularly fine.
9. Do all antique chess sets appreciate in value? At the moment the market is on an up swing however price has fluctuated and collector tastes have changed over time. If you buy quality items at a fair market rate you are unlikely to lose.
10. Are there fakes? Yes there are but this applies mostly to the more expensive sets ($1000+). This is due to the fact that making a good fake is very expensive, so its not worth doing so for the less expensive sets. However it often does make financial sense to have a few pieces made to complete a part set. A lot of 100+ years old sets will have lost pieces; I don't see one well done (i.e. nearly impossible to tell) pawn replacement as a major problem; however having a few of the major pieces replaced would be an issue in my book.
11. Keep a record of the sets you buy, where when, cost etc. A lot of collectors are also taking digital photos of their sets so they can exchange views with other collectors anywhere in the world. Taking good photos of small chess pieces does take some practice and experimentation.
12. The quality and size of a set will have an exponential effect on its value relative to other sets of the same type and material. High quality knights (finely carved) are a good indication of a sets overall quality for a lot of playing sets. Here are two examples of a pretty common pattern called Barleycorn, however the second set is a superior example, note the finer carving on the knight.
Good luck hunting!
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Copyright Dermot Rochford 2005. Do not reproduce or publish without my prior consent.