Antique Indian Chess Sets
East Indian Company was setup in
Most of the Indian sets available to collectors today come from mid 18th Century onwards. The majority of these sets were created for, and targeted at the export market where demand was strong. This affected the design and themes of the sets themselves.
The majority of sets created in the 18th and 19th century were decorative playing sets carved and turned from ivory. These were produced in relatively large quantities. A much smaller number of figural sets were also produced.
Indian Export Playing Sets
The majority of these sets have pieces that are made from several turned and carved sections that screw together to form the whole piece. This helped reduce material cost by wasting less ivory, which was expensive relative to labor costs. Note most English sets playing sets are also constructed in this way, however the actual screws are usually longer in the English sets and this can be useful when trying to work out the origin of a set that is hard to categorize. The majority of Indian sets were made from Indian ivory and not African ivory which was used predominately in sets made in Europe*.
Dating, naming and identifying the exact region of origin of Indian sets is not an exact science. A lot of the current information seems to be based on a minimal amount of data. Below is my opinion taking into account what the major reference books have proven and my own observations from seeing and handling dozens of these sets of the last two decades. If you have any additional evidence on the origin and dating of the sets below please drop me a line and I will update the article and cite you if you wish.
Here are eight representative antique Indian playing sets :
The set below I
believe is an early pattern of an Indian export playing set probably made in
2. The photo below is of another fine late eighteen
3. Below is a later
4. Below is an example of a pattern called `Pepys`, the name is derived from a similar set supposedly owned by English diarist Samuel Pepys from the 17th century. Again there does not seem to be solid evidence for this. The set below is from the early part of the 19th century. This example is nearly 6 inches tall. Sets of this style have been become quite rare and as a result prices are strong.
Another high end
pattern is called Kashmir/Berhampur. I have not seen any evidence that that
these sets were actually made in these areas of
Here is a link to a example (this link is from Elizabeth Gann’s site) : http://i22.photobucket.com/albums/b340/chessqueen/Antique%20Kashmir/KashmirFB.jpg
The most common
Vizapapatam sets were made in the mid 19th century, they come in a
few different materials, ivory vs stained ivory, ivory vs sandal wood, ivory vs
horn (see horn pieces below). These sometimes come up for sale with their
original ivory games boxes and containers for the pieces elaborated covered in
pen and ink decoration. These make nice presentation items, but generally the
sets themselves are not as fine or large as the sets shown earlier.
7. The Anglo Indian set below follows more closely the from of English sets it was inspired from. This makes sense given the market it was target at. The set below has a 4 inch king. You will see these being sold as English, the cruder carved knight heads are a sign of a Indian set, give that English sets of this size and type usual have finely carved knights. In general these sets are less valuable than the more elaborate sets shown earlier.
8. Indian Muslim sets do not have any figural representation because creating images/objects that depict living things is in violation of the Muslim religion. These sets come in a variety of forms and some can be elaborately decorated with geometric patterns highlighted in gold gilt. They were made throughout a wide period of time so dating can be difficult. The set below is a plainer one from the 19th century.
In general there are variations on all of these types and no two sets are ever totally identical. Size and quality also vary, in general the larger sets are better made.
In my opinion given the quality age and size of these sets they are still under appreciated, however over the last few years prices has started to rise more significantly as the number of sets available has dropped off dramatically.
The more sets you
handle the easier it will be to tell the quality of any set you are offered.
You can still pick up nice quality early Vizagapatam set with a 5 inch king
from 2k-3k sterling. In fancy antique stores on
In the 20th century smaller lower quality sets were made. These should be avoided if possible. Today bone replicas of 18th and 19th century Indian sets are made and available at a reasonable prices. However the workmanship is not that of the antique sets. Be careful, I have seen more than one replica set being sold as 19th century.
Indian Or Chinese sets ?
OK, now for something a little more controversial,
I think its possible than Indian craftsmen were responsible for some of the sets
previously know as Burmese and supposedly produced in Canton China. The two
sets below are examples of the “Burmese” pattern. The first one was probably produced
The Burmese pattern in my
mind were always closely connected to so called
Indian Figural Sets
Many of these were produced as decorative objects and never really meant to be played with. These are much rarer than the playing sets. The construction techniques are different, some are carved from one piece of material while in others the main figures are attached with pegs to the bases. These sets were expensive originally because of the amount of material needed and the extensive carving required compared to most playing sets.
Here are four of the well known forms below
If you have to ask the price you cannot afford it !
Century Rajasthan set (photo courtesy of
These sets are constructed from separate ivory components which are cemented together and then lacquered and gilded. Rajasthan sets vary in quality and size significantly. The better sets can be charming and very decorative. In the early 1990s they were more valuable than Delhi John sets. sets.
4. Late 19th century Sahib Bust set, these sets are charming, the gold gilding and polychrome really enhances these bust sets and are usually not over the top. These sets seem to have been produced in relatively small numbers and few large sets of this type have come onto the market in the last ten years.
In general all these figural sets vary more than the playing sets in terms of appearance, quality and size. The Delhi John sets are the most sought after and good examples can fetch very large sums, 20k sterling++. In the 20th century smaller and lower quality sets were made. These sets are also now being made in bone but again the quality and grace of the earlier sets is generally lacking.
Notes and References
· Indian ivory has a tendency to get whiter over time, whereas African ivory yellows more.
· Reference material : Master Pieces : Gareth Williams, …..
· Related link on Indian sets : http://history.chess.free.fr/india.htm
· Reference to modern bone Indian sets http://www.thechessstore.com/product/PSB700
· High end recreation mammoth ivory sets http://www.elizabethgann.com/oleg2004.html
Contact me : firstname.lastname@example.org if further information.
This article is still under construction, I
intend to update it over time. Copyright Dermot Rochford
Please do not reproduce or use any material from this article without my prior consent.
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