Lewis Chessman: Ivory rare discovery

An extremely valuable medieval chess piece, one of the five missing Lewis Chessmen, has recently been discovered in drawer by a family in Edinburgh.



An extremely valuable medieval chess piece, one of the five missing Lewis Chessmen, has recently been discovered in drawer by a family in Edinburgh.  The 900 year-old Lewis Chessmen hoard was discovered on the Isle of Lewis in 1831 and includes some 93 pieces, most of which are now to be found in the British Museum.  The newly re-discovered piece is a warder (the medieval equivalent of a rook) and takes the form of an 8.8cm tall figurine of a Norse warrior and is made of walrus ivory.

The warder was bought by the family’s grandfather in 1964 for the princely sum of £5.  It is now estimated to be worth up to £1 million and will go up for auction at Sotheby’s next month.  While the discovery is no doubt fantastic news for the family and the piece will make an important addition to any museum’s collection, its sale at auction raises the issue of the impending ban on dealing in ivory in the UK.

Ivory Act 2018

In December 2018, the Ivory Act 2018 (the “Act“) received Royal Assent and is due to come into force in “late 2019”.  The Act introduces an almost complete prohibition on dealing in items containing elephant ivory, with a limited number of exceptions for:

  • Pre-1947 objects containing less than 10% ivory by volume (the “de minimis” exception);
  • Pre-1918 items of outstanding artistic value and importance, being the rarest and most important items of their type;
  • Pre-1975 musical instruments containing less than 20% ivory by volume; and
  • Pre-1918 portrait miniatures.

Items must be registered (online, for a fee) to benefit from an exception.  There is also a general exemption for sales to and between accredited museums.  There are both criminal and civil sanctions for contravening the Act, ranging from fines up to five years’ imprisonment.

The Lewis Chessman that prompted this article is made of walrus ivory and so is not currently subject to the ban, which only applies to elephant ivory.  However, the Act grants the Secretary of State the power to increase the scope of the Act to ivory from other sources.  On 30 May 2019 the government launched an evidence-gathering consultation with a view to potentially widening the prohibition by amending the definition of “ivory” in the Act to include ivory from the following species:

  • Common hippopotamus
  • Orca
  • Narwhal
  • Sperm whale
  • Walrus
  • Warthog
  • Mammoth

Collectors and stakeholders in the antiques trade, musical instrument industry and other interested parties are invited to respond to the consultation by 22 August 2019.

Opposition and Impact

The Act has faced significant opposition from the antiques trade.  Trade organisations LAPADA (The Association of Art and Antiques Dealers) and BADA (British Antique Dealers’ Association) both lobbied against aspects of the ban, in particular the de minimis threshold of 10%, which they saw as being overly restrictive, but to no avail.  BADA is currently fundraising and surveying its membership to assess the potential financial impact of the ban, with a view to mounting a legal challenge to the Act.

Whether such a challenge to an Act of Parliament can be sustained is yet to be seen but, for now, dealers in antique ivory face severe restrictions on their business when the Act comes into force.

It is not just antique dealers who are likely to suffer under this ban.  Many professional musicians will find their instruments are now unsellable and potentially uninsurable.  Bassoons, for example, were traditionally made with an ivory ring around the top of the instrument.  While there is an exemption for pre-1975 instruments, Heckel, a well-known manufacturer of high quality bassoons, continued to use real ivory until 1986, meaning that a decade’s worth of fine instruments may now be worthless.  Even if an instrument meets the criteria for the exemption, it must be registered and the fee paid before it can be sold.  This is in addition to the existing administrative burden of obtaining the necessary certificates and permits under CITES and the EU Wildlife Trade Regulations if the owner wishes to travel with their instrument.

A further consideration is the effect of the ban on the value of private collections of ivory objects, such as Japanese netsuke or chess sets, especially in the context of valuing a deceased collector’s estate.  While it should be noted that there is no prohibition on inheriting ivory under the Act, determining its valuation for probate purposes may become quite difficult and require in-depth consideration of whether a particular item qualifies for an exemption or investigating whether there is a museum willing to purchase it.  If not, then the item may be unsellable and effectively worthless, which could in turn have a significant impact on the overall value of the estate.


Collyer Bristow are members of the British Antique Dealers’ Association and LAPADA – The Association of Art & Antiques Dealers and are able to offer comprehensive advice on all aspects of dealing in art, antiques and cultural property.




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