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Cheque, mate

Indian art has notched up more than its share of auction records but few know that made-in-India chess sets have quite a loyal tribe of collectors, including Wall Street bankers who think they add just the right touch to office decor.

Little wonder that prices of these elaborately crafted sets have been climbing steadily. In its May 1 sale, Londonbased auction house Bonhams is featuring a number of vintage Indian chess sets with estimates going up to £15, 000 (Rs 12 lakh).
In India - considered the birthplace of chess - sets were made for export from the 18th century on. Craftsmen from places like Madras and Jaipur carved and painted ivory and horn figures depicting Indian princes and their forces ranged against East India Company sepoys. These became known as John Company sets.

One of the sets on sale shows the British East India Company versus Indian forces. One side is predominantly cream and the other is red, with gilt highlights. With the kings as elephants and pawns as musicians, archers, spearmen and drummers, the set is a decorative and fascinating piece of history.

Another highlight of the auction is a stunning ivory set made in Rajasthan circa 1870. In lacquered and gilded ivory, each carved face has different expressions.

Luke Honey, chess specialist at Bonhams, says the pieces have many fanatical collectors. "Many of these were initially chess players, but the collecting bug sort of took over. Remember, that many of the Indian sets for sale were never really designed to be played with, but were really "high-status gifts", meant more for display than play. "

Interestingly, Michael Jackson was quite an avid collector with Martin Bashir noting that he shelled out as much as $6 million for a marble set.

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