Friday, November 10, 2017

Nishapur Chess Set Offered for Sale by Sotheby's

Hmmmm....

I receive advertisements from Sotheby's regarding various auctions they are hosting all around the globe.  To make a long story short, here is an offering from a recent auction held in London on October 25, 2017, Arts of the Islamic World.

Chess Collectors International members may most likely recognize the name of the owner:  Lothar Schmid (1928 - 2013), from his collection:

Image from Sotheby's auction website.

Sixteen (16) pieces of ivory described as "a rare Saminid part chess set, Nishapur, 10th/11th century, or earlier."  Estimated auction value was between 15,000 and 20,000 GBP (roughly $19,600 - $26,200 USD).

The pieces were evidently not sold (auction lot 138).  [Two rock crystal "Fatimid chess pieces" from the Lothar Schmid collection were also offered at this sale and also did not sell, Lots 136 and l37.]

I am having a few problems with asserting the age and authenticity of these pieces.  The catalog claims that these pieces are of a "set"  - nearly a complete set - and are as old as the dating range suggests:  "...an almost complete chess set of this early period."  Sixteen pieces, some from "each" side (I am assuming the somewhat darker colored ivory pieces are the "black" pieces and the lighter pieces are the "white" pieces, or the colored equivalents of what was prevalent in use back in that time period), are not a complete chess set of 32 pieces.

Setting aside one's reliance upon Grandmaster Schmid's collecting expertise (despite the fact that we know experts can be and have been fooled by clever forgeries of nearly everything in the world of art and collecting in the past and present), I have some qualms about assuming these pieces are authentic:

(1)  We have only one source cited for reference, a 1987 article in German from a publication that, you can be sure, is most likely not available online and would need to be translated by anyone who does not read/speak German.

(2)  We know nothing about how the pieces were acquired, when, where, or the circumstances surrounding their discovery/excavation.  Were the pieces individually carbon date tested to confirm age?  What were the circumstances of their discovery?  Who, what, when and where were the pieces discovered or excavated?  How did they come into the possession of Grandmaster Schmid?

(3)  Were the pieces purchased at the auction and, if so, by a museum?  My first assumption is that, given the rarity of such pieces, many museums would have been vying for ownership of the pieces to add to a collection of Islamic art and history -- IF (and that's a big IF) the curator(s) trusted their authenticity.

The pieces certainly LOOK authenticate; but then, remember what happened with the allegedly ancient gameboards supposedly excavated at Jiroft - and how they were exposed as frauds by a (now retired) research fellow at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York), Oscar White Muscarella.

1 comment:

archaeopath said...

Thanks for that. The Nishapur pieces are also mentioned in Antje Kluge-Pinsker, Schachspiel und Trictrac. Zeugnisse mittelalterlicher Spielfreude aus salischer Zeit, Sigmaringen 1991, pp. 10–11 and fig. 2. The author was in touch with Lothar Schmid himself. She writes that the dating was made because of the find context. This suggests that they are mentioned in some excavation journal or report but she fails to provide a reference. Petzold completey fails to write anything about the context.

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