How to identify an antique chess set



2016-07-05 14:44:00

Chess is one of the oldest board games in the world.

It originated in 6th century India, although the rules would only develop into the modern form in Spain in the 1400s.

Unsurprisingly for a hobby known as “the game of kings”, antique chess sets can be very valuable. So how do you determine age and value?

Here’s a few tips.


Age is one the more important determinants of a chessboard’s value, with pre-19th century sets being very rare indeed.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Unless you’re an expert it can be difficult to tell the age of a chess set by sight alone. That said, there are a few things to look out for.

One is whether or not it’s handmade. If it is, there should be variations in the pieces ranging from slight to major that machine made sets do not exhibit. 

Does it look too clean? Chances are it’s not very old. Antiques tend to build up a patina over time.


The most desirable chess sets are often those made from materials that are either in extremely short supply or are now illegal.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Ivory was one of the main materials used in the construction of high end chess sets before it was banned in 1989.

Similarly hard woods like ebony and rosewood are very desirable, but as hardwood trees are unsustainable the value of sets made from these materials have increased. Silver is occasionaly used.

Plastic will date to the 20th century and can essentially be ruled out.


There are a vast range of designs available. The most common modern set is based on a design created in 1849 by a company named Staunton.

A Staunton chess set - Image: Wikimedia Commons

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Prior to this innovation, there was a huge variation in the look and feel of chess sets.

Staunton’s elegant, neoclassical inspired set became the standard around the world.

So if your chess set looks old and does not conform to the Staunton design, you may have a genuine antique on your hands.


More important than any of the other considerations on this list is the item’s condition.

You may have discovered something extremely rare, but if its incomplete or damaged its unlikely to be of interest to anyone.

Ensure that the full complement of pieces is included and there is no significant damage. 

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