The New York Times


Weekend Arts
Fine Arts Leisure


Wendy Moonan


The Fine Art Of Chess Pieces

Versions of chess go back thousands of years, but the game as we know it did not emerge until about A.D. 600 in India. Today, more people across more cultural divides than ever play chess, and it’s not even an Olympic sport.

 “When you play chess, it doesn’t matter what language you speak, what your race or religion is, what nation you belong to or whether you are rich or poor,” said Elizabeth Gann, a dealer who is perhaps the only American woman specializing in chess sets. “Everyone is equal. That’s the beauty of chess.”


Ms. Gann, who has been based in Babylon, N.Y., on Long Island, but is about to move to Boston, usually sells her chess sets by appointment, referral or online (www Next month, for the first time, she will be an exhibitor at “Antiques & Fine Art at the Armory.” The 80-dealer show, from Dec. 8 to 12 at the Seventh Regiment Armory, 67th Street and Park Avenue, was organized by Wendy Management. For Ms. Gann, handcrafted chess sets areobjets d’art.


Chess sets come in all kinds of materials: gold, silver, bronze, elephant and (now extinct) woolly mammoth ivory, amber, onyx, lapis, marble, wood, glass and porcelain.


Ms. Gann sells both antique and new sets. She serves as an agent for people like Eva Stakova, a Czech glass artist who designs and etches geometric crystal chessmen that are particularly popular with Muslim players who shun figural pieces for religious reasons.


Ms. Gann also represents Oleg Raikis, a Russian craftsman who creates original wood and mammoth-ivory chess pieces. He will be at her booth during the fair to take custom orders. (Previous commissions include chess pieces carved as likenesses of his patrons.)


Two of Ms. Gann’s longtime collectors on Long Island, Floyd and Bernice Sarisohn of Commack, have so many chess sets (more than 1,000, of which a third are antique), that they founded the Long Island Chess Museum in their home. It is open by appointment by calling (631) 543-1330.


“We’ve been collecting for 52 years, since before we married,” Mrs. Sarisohn said. “My husband has never met a chess set he didn’t like.”


Ms. Gann has customers all over the world. “One client in London has 700 sets,” she said. “A man in Mexico City has more than 3,000.”


Ms. Gann said Americans buy tens of millions of chess sets each year. At any given moment, there are also hundreds of vintage sets on eBay.


But few dealers specialize in antique chess sets. The short list, apart from Ms. Gann, includes Frank A. Cama-ratta Jr., a Toney, Ala., chess master who collects and sells mostly 19th-century English sets (www; Garrick Coleman of Portobello Road in London; and Dermot Rochford of Dublin ( _rochford).


Mr. Rochford, who said that “chess is both a hobby and a business for me,” sells a wide range of antique sets (including a Bauhaus example based on a Joseph Hartwig design from the early 1920’s) and rare chess reference books that are not readily available, like “Chessmen for Collectors” by Victor Keats and “Master Pieces” by Gareth Williams. (Another classic series, “Culture, Chess & Art” by Edwin S. Munger, can be found


Ms. Gann learned to play chess at age 11. “I traveled a lot with my family,” she said. “At 16,1 was studying opera with Maria Callas at Juilliard — and everywhere we went I bought a chess set. When I was 19,1 gave up opera but not chess.”


She married and had a son, David, to whom she taught chess when he was 4. “It was for mental agility,” she said. “I wanted him to learn to focus and think ahead.”


She began selling chess sets 12 years ago. “Some 99 percent of my clients are men,” she said. “Chess has always been a man’s war game.” Her prices for antique sets range from $5,000 to $18,000.


The market for antique chess sets is quite strong. In June 2003, Sotheby’s sold a 1923 Russian porcelain set for $22,800, on which the Reds (Communists) fought the Whites (Capitalists). At the same sale, a 19th-century Indian set that depicted Bengal fighters and their British colonial overlords sold for $21,600. Last year, Christie’s London sold an early-20th-century amber animal set for $65,000, a world record for a set of that kind. Even without a Bobby Fischer, interest in chess grows.


Chinese Lacquer

When people see their friends they accompany guests to the outskirts of the city, to a river bank w willow trees,” said Willow Hai Chang, the director of the China It stitute Gallery in Manhattan. “Tb break off a branch and give it to tl friend, to remind him of their friei ship along his journey.” Ms. Chang was explaining a nai tive scene on one of 31 objects in “Masterpieces of Chinese Lacque From the Mike Healy Collection,” show at the China Institute, 125 Ei 65th Street, through next Saturda; includes intricately carved lacqu« bowls, dishes, table screens and w cups ranging from the Han dynas' (206 B.C. to 220 A.D.) through the Ming (1368 to 1644). Referring to its often minutely carved imagery, Ms. Chang said, “Lacquer is known for its intimac and scholarly appeal.” It is also known for its hidden, mysterious meanings. One carvec red plate from the late Yuan or ea Ming dynasties (14th to 15th centi ry) shows a young boy next to an erly, bearded man who is holding staff. It is a moonlit night, and the are walking toward a wine store и der an enormous pine tree. A shof tendant pokes his head out of a wi dow, watching his dog greet the p; A crane lands off to one side. "The figural examples are clea intended to be narratives of life among literati scholars and officials,” Julia M. White, curator of Asian Art at the Honolulu Acaden of Arts (where the show originate writes in the catalog. “Landscape serves as a backdrop for interact) and storytelling.” The catalog explains that the ol man and the tree may be birthda; images. (“The pine tree shows di{ ty and character,” Ms. Chang sail “The crane symbolizes longevity. The rim of the plate is festoonei with auspicious plum, tree peony, mellia and pomegranate blossom “The peony was a favorite flower the Yuan and Ming dynasties,” M Chang said. “It was a symbol of wealth and nobility.” For the ancient Chinese, lacque was a luxury item, an example of traordinary craftsmanship. But с need not know the complex techn: of making lacquer, which involve laying down up to 200 thin layers i sap on a wood or fabric base, to a) preciate its colors, virtuoso carvi and symbol-laden narratives.