The scary, little, chubby chess piece sat in the old Scottish antiques dealer’s desk for 50 years. He bought it for a few pounds and stuck it in a drawer. After his death his heirs were checking out his belongings and discovered the elaborate carving made from a walrus tusk. One of them thought it might have some value. They guessed correctly.
On July 2, it will be auctioned off by Sotheby’s. Its anticipated sale price is around $1 million.
It is a piece from the collection of Lewis Chessmen, carved in the 12th century in the form of Norse warriors. In 1831, 93 pieces of the group were found on Scotland’s Isle of Lewis. They now are on display in museums in London and Edinburgh, Scotland.
I read about the 3-1/2” high Lewis Chessman yesterday morning in The Wall Street Journal at my factory office. Later that morning we had an inquiry from South America on a used threading attachment for a 2-5/8”-6 spindle Wickman screw machine. I immediately started wondering if the attachment was a potential Lewis chess piece. I haven’t sold a big Wickman machine for years. I have stripped several of them for key parts, but we don’t sell much big Wickman stuff anymore.
Then came the pricing quandary. What do you ask for a 50-year-old attachment for a machine few folks in the world use anymore? I am blessed to have a complete one in stock and the components to almost complete another one.
I pulled a price out of my behind, $7,500. Another member of the team objected. He suggested that another party who was apt to also have a complete attachment available might be asking more money for theirs. He argued that we probe the other dealer’s price before quoting our prospect in South America. I pushed back. To me $7,500 was a nice price for a probably useless antique that would very likely outlast me. To me it was iron. To him it was gold. It’s what makes a market and attracts all those cars to estate sales.
I am fascinated by how things are valued by people. It is also the apple pie of my business, guessing the value of stuff, believing in my judgment, but having a willingness to throw in the towel when the market proves me wrong.
If I had bought that Lewis Chessman and I didn’t know the ugly carving was 900 years old, I probably would have dished it off, made a few hundred quid, and celebrated with chocolate ice cream. If you have a business with expensive employees, rent to pay, taxes, and health insurance bills you need a semblance of steady cash flow. It is hard to wait for the market to discover your hidden brilliance.
I knew that the potential buyer for the seldom-coveted threading attachment might decide to run his other big Wickman longer hours, rather than schlep a heavy piece of metal 5000 miles, pay 40% duty, then find a technician to put it on his machine correctly. Or maybe he could find a soon-to-be-scrapped machine in Sao Paolo for $1,000. A collector can afford to wait, but a business person has tuition to pay.
I may have a few ugly ivories on my shelves – dusty, grimy die heads or screw machine manuals that Mr. Davenport may have signed. I don’t know, and I don’t really care. Very often less is more in business, and a visually impaired old dude like me is quite likely to trip over a vagrant ivory that falls on the shop floor.
Question: Do you collect or throw out? Why?