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Chess is an ancient game, dating back to the 6th century. Its intellectual challenge and timeless appeal has tempted countless artists and architects to design chess sets. Few can play at the level of Norwegian champion Magnus Carlsen and Russian challenger Sergey Karjakin, who just faced off at the World Chess Championship in New York. Carlsen defeated Karjakin and kept his title by winning three of the four rapid chess matches in a tie-breaking event on November 30. But novices and grandmasters alike will succumb to the allure of these chess sets.
1. Isamu Noguchi, 1944
Materials: Plastic for the chess pieces, which are replicas; ebonised ash plywood, aluminium, acrylic inlays, and brass and steel for the table.
Isamu Noguchi was among the artists invited by New York gallerist Julien Levy to contribute to his 1944 to 1945 exhibit, The Imagery of Chess. When Noguchi’s namesake museum acquired one of the nine surviving chess tables in 2002, it celebrated with The Imagery of Chess Revisited, an homage to Levy’s wartime exhibit. A similar Noguchi chess table (sans pieces) was sold for US$233,000 (RM1.04 million) in November 2016 at the Wright auction house in Chicago.
2. Max Ernst, 1965
Materials: Gold and silver
Surrealist artist Max Ernst, a chess fan, also tried his hand at chess set design for Julien Levy’s The Imagery of Chess exhibit in the mid 1940s. Later, he worked with French goldsmith Pierre Hugo on a limited edition set of six. Handcrafted in gold and silver, each of the 32 pieces is signed by Ernst and hallmarked by Hugo. Art-and-antiques e-commerce site 1stdibs.com is offering the 1965 set for US$125,000 (RM559,000).
3. Man Ray, 1945
Marcel Duchamp turned Man Ray into a chess player, and both artists participated in Julien Levy’s chess-themed gallery show. David Bowie owned this chess set, which Man Ray created in a limited edition of 10 in 1945. It sold for ₤106,250 (RM583,600) at Sotheby’s in London in November.
4. Michel Redlin, circa 1700
Seventeenth-century German master Michel Redlin fashioned this exquisite chessboard and pieces from amber. Unable to distinguish the champion and challenger as white and black, Redlin instead favoured clear amber for one side and opaque amber for the other. The set is being offered by German dealer Georg Laue at TEFAF New York for US$650,000 (RM2.9 million).
5. Zaha Hadid, 2016
Materials: Silver resin
The late architect Zaha Hadid could not resist the challenge of designing a chess set. Dubbed Field of Towers, produced in a limited edition of 100, and priced at ₤9,900 (RM54,380), Hadid’s set conjures a vision of sleek, duelling skylines.
6. Maurizio Cattelan, 2003
Materials: Porcelain and wood
Puckish Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan was among the artists tapped in 2001 by RS&A Ltd of London for a 21st century celebration of chess. Cattelan’s take, which he named Good Versus Evil, pits Hitler and Cruella de Vil against Martin Luther King and Sophia Loren. Produced in an edition of seven, Cattelan’s chess set has fetched as much as US$386,000 (RM1.725 million) at auction.
7. Yayoi Kusama, 2003
Materials: Porcelain, wood, and leather
RS&A also commissioned a chess set from Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama for the 2003 London exhibit that included Cattelan. She responded with Pumpkin Chess, an exploration of her most famous artistic theme. It featured a leather pumpkin-shaped case and two leather cushions. One of the seven examples commanded almost US$400,000 (RM1.79 million) at Phillips New York in November 2012.
8. Laurel Consuelo Broughton, 2014
Materials: Powder-coated steel, hand-drawn grid
Laurel Consuelo Broughton found a new dimension on the ancient game The World Is Flat, which she created for the Chess show at Jai & Jai gallery in Los Angeles in 2014. The spherical board is magnetized, allowing players to move pieces to positions that are impossible on a traditional board. Handmade in a limited edition of five, The World Is Flat can be had for US$4,000 (RM17,895).
9. Anonymous, 20th century
Materials: Gold, silver, and semi-precious stones
An Israeli-American jeweller who wishes to remain anonymous lavished more than 14,000 hours on making this chess set. Themed after the Battle of Issus (a 333 BCE fight that pitted Alexander the Great against King Darius III), each figure sits on a base of pink rhodonite or green malachite. New Orleans gallery M.S. Rau Antiques lists it for US$1.65 million/RM7.38 million (table and chairs are included).
10. Anonymous, made famous in 1972
The showdown between Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer is the best known in the history of chess. Matching a Soviet champion against an American upstart made the 1972 World Chess Championship a pop culture extension of the Cold War. Fischer emerged the victor of the 21-game contest and gained immortality as a chess genius. The chessboard was offered by Heritage Auctions for US$119,500 (RM534,000), which was used in 15 of the games and was signed by both men.