With the purchase of the Lewis Chessmen in 1831, the British Museum created, overnight, the single-most important collection of medieval chess pieces in the world, its holdings rivaled only by the Cabinet des médailles of the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris, which houses the famed "Charlemagne" chessmen. So rich is the treasure from the Isle of Lewis that the British Museum was able to lend enough pieces to re-create a famous chess game for our current exhibition while retaining a substantial number of pieces on display in London.
The Metropolitan's collection of medieval chess pieces—while including several masterpieces—is not sufficient to populate even one side of a chess board. In fact, the first medieval chess piece to enter the collection was a nineteenth-century plaster copy of a bishop in the British Museum collection. The original bishop was carved from walrus ivory and dates to the twelfth century, but it is nonetheless distinct from the Lewis hoard, being more summarily carved.
The copy was purchased in 1881, along with reproductions of a number of medieval ivories in the British Museum. In 1913, the Metropolitan again acquired copies of famous medieval chess pieces in European collections through the gift of James F. Magee Junior, a well-known Philadelphia chess player. This time, however, they were based on originals found in museum collections in Paris and Florence.
According to his letters, Magee, while traveling in Europe, directly petitioned museum directors to make copies for him. That same year, in Philadelphia, Magee exhibited seventy-eight copies of the Lewis Chessmen that were in the collection of Cleveland collector John G. White. It would appear that Magee then followed White's example, for by 1920 he was able to make another gift to the Metropolitan, this time of copies of some of the Lewis Chessmen.
Meanwhile, the two most important medieval chess pieces in the Metropolitan's collection had come to New York as part of the vast legacy of J. Pierpont Morgan. These rank among the finest in any collection. The throne of the walrus ivory Bishop is more elaborate than those of the bishops from Lewis, a testament to the virtuosity of the carver.
Exceptional carving also characterizes the armored Knight, who twists and turns in his saddle as he battles a dragon.
A few Islamic and Persian chess pieces were acquired for the Metropolitan early in the twentieth century through the Rogers Fund, including a wooden equestrian piece attributed to Egypt.
But the Metropolitan owes its reputation as a world-class repository of chess sets to the beneficence of Gustavus Adolphus Pfeiffer. A native of Parkersburg, Iowa, Pfeiffer made his fortune in the pharmaceutical, perfume, and cosmetics industries, his business interests bringing him eventually to New York.
Pfeiffer wrote several essays on chess in the 1930s, and his devotion to the game led him to support the purchase of the Tenth Street brownstone that has housed the Marshall Chess Club since 1931. Some of his collection was shown at the Metropolitan in 1944. Pfeiffer first supported the Metropolitan's purchase of a chess piece in 1947, funding the acquisition of an Islamic example currently on view in The Game of Kings. The following year, he wrote to the Secretary of the Trustees of the Metropolitan about his love of collecting:
About a score of years ago, when one of my nephews, knowing of my interest in chess, presented me with an unusual chess set of hand carved ivory, I became intrigued with the idea of collecting chessmen as a hobby. The pursuit of this hobby has taken me into strange lands and places, into the musty darkness of antique shops in England and on the Continent, into the salons of New York antiquarians, and, through the medium of correspondence with potentates and craftsmen, into palaces and cottages.
Having derived so much pleasure from my hobby, I now wish to share some of my treasures with the public through presentation of them to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
In two great waves, first in 1948, and then in 1953, Pfeiffer's collection of hundreds of chess sets, pieces, and tables was given to the Metropolitan. (See Collections for several examples.) His books on chess were given to the New York Public Library (see accession sheet).
The earlier history of much of Pfeiffer's collection is unknown. Some sets were acquired in London; at least one was purchased in Leningrad. James Magee Junior was one of his sources in the United States. Many of the sets are European of the nineteenth century, but Indian and Asian examples also figure prominently.
The gift also includes figures that remind us that chess is a game of war that extends well beyond the Middle Ages—one set appears to honor the military leaders of the First World War; two others sets, fashioned in Austria and France from spent bullets and cartridge cases, more chillingly evoke the realities of that war.
An endowment established by Pfeiffer has allowed the purchase of important sets and single pieces, especially Islamic examples, notably the Nishapur set (on view in Gallery 453 within the New Galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia), the Pawn shown below left, and a few medieval Knights, which often feature remarkably accurate representations of armor (see the earlier post, "Armed to the Teeth," by Dirk H. Breiding and Michelle Jubin). One among them, acquired in 1984, represents a knight at leisure, holding a falcon. (A knight of similar form, acquired by the British Museum in 1860, probably represents his bellicose opponent, wielding an ax.)
Two Kings, acquired by the Metropolitan as medieval chess pieces, may in fact come from distinct contexts. One, in walrus ivory from the late fourteenth century, may have served as the finial of a scepter rather than as a game piece. Another, of carved pumice stone, holds in his hands the unlikely attributes of a shepherd's crook and a bird.
Despite the acquisitions made possible by Pfeiffer's bequest, the medieval chess board at the Metropolitan remains vexingly incomplete. The loan of the Lewis Chessmen from the British Museum is therefore all the more precious.