What you see: A complete 32-piece Bauhaus chess set, in blond and ebonized beech wood, designed by Josef Hartwig in 1923-1924. It comes with its original box. Christie’s London estimates it at £15,000 to £20,000, or about $18,270 to $24,360.
The expert: Murray Macaulay, head of the prints and multiples department, Christie’s London.
How do we know this is a prototype of the Bauhaus chess set? We haven’t pinned our flag to the mast on this one. Walter Gropius’s recollections describe it as a prototype, and that was conveyed by the Isaacs family [to whom Gropius gave it]. The story is Josef Hartwig gave it to Gropius in the 1920s. Gropius himself attributes it as a prototype. It’s his recollection of the set that we’re referring to.
Do we know how many prototypes of the Bauhaus chess set Josef Hartwig made? It’s been suggested that one copy was given to all the masters at the Bauhaus at the time. If that was the case, about ten were made. Whether Hartwig gave them to each of the masters is not clear.
How rare is it for a complete Bauhaus chess set to come to auction with its original box? Probably five in the last ten years. But what really sets this particular set apart is its provenance. It’s the Walter Gropius connection that makes it so interesting.
How do we know that the Bauhaus chess set first belonged to Walter Gropius? Reginald Isaacs was a very noteworthy architect, a student of Gropius, a family friend of Gropius, and he wrote his biography. The Isaacs were frequent visitors to the Gropius home. The recollection of Isaacs is it was a direct gift from Gropius. Reginald Issacs later gave it to his son, Henry Isaacs. Also, the box has an inventory label on the bottom that is Gropius’s inventory label, which [was applied] prior to him going to the United States. It validates Gropius’s story that he was given the set by Josef Hartwig.
Is the Bauhaus chess set the thing that Josef Hartwig is best known for? Yes.
Did Josef Hartwig design it without a chess board, or did the one with this set go missing? There was a board design that went with it, made out of paper and card. It folded into four pieces. We believe it [the board that went with this set] perished.
And the set went into production? Yes,.
Do we know how many Bauhaus chess sets were made? We don’t. It wasn’t mass-produced. It was manufactured by Bauhaus themselves. There would have been limitations in terms of scale [the scale of production]. There can’t be many, or we’d see them more often.
The lot notes describe the Bauhaus chess set as “model XVI”. What does that mean? It means it’s design number 16. There are other models and other variations in the design as Josef Hartwig refined it. This model went into production.
What’s the Bauhaus chess set like in person? Are there aspects that the camera does not pick up? What’s wonderful about this particular set is the sense that it’s been played with. Henry Isaacs remembers playing chess with Gropius. It’s not just a historically significant object, it was everyday. It was used for its function. The box shows quite a bit of use, like the game boxes you’d find in any family home.
What makes this Bauhaus chess set design stand out? The conceptual idea behind it is so brilliant. It’s a major rethink of the design of the chess pieces. Josef Hartwig tried to think of a way to remove the hierarchical sense of the chess set while making it much more utilitarian. The pieces are designed around their function, and the way they move. The bishop takes the form of a cross. The rook is a cube because it moves forwards, sideways, and backwards. The knight is the shape of two ‘L’s sitting on top of each other, because it moves in an L-shape on the board. It’s very logical. When you see it, it makes absolute sense. It’s function-first. The conception of it is very unified and modern. It was thought out in a very contemporary way, the whole package. Now we don’t look at it as revolutionary as it really was.
What condition is the Bauhaus chess set in? The pieces do definitely [look as if] they’ve been handled. Very much so.
Do they have a patina? Yes. They’re not pure black and not pure white. The wood looks like it’s been used and played with.
What’s the world auction record for a Bauhaus chess set? It was set earlier this year at Quittenbaum Kunstauktionen in Germany. It was €20,000, hammer. It had a board, but no provenance. This set doesn’t have a board, but it has a wonderful backstory.
I imagine you’ll see serious cross-competition between chess set collectors and Bauhaus collectors? It appeals to both. This particular set has been featured in important exhibitions–The Art of Chess show in London in 2003, and The Imagery of Chess Revisited at the Noguchi Museum in 2005 to 2006. It’s a great prize of 20th century chess-related artwork.
Does the fact that this particular set appeared in those two significant shows add yet more value? It adds to its weight. You’re buying something that you could see in the Museum of Modern Art. That’s what you’re getting.
Even more so than the chess set Man Ray designed? Yes. It’s a classic of modern design, so ahead of its time. It’s incredibly important.
Have you handled the pieces in the Bauhaus chess set? Yes.
What was that like? The pieces being light to hold is an interesting thing. It stood out to me that it’s been thought out on so many levels. It’s easy to play with. The pieces have a lovely quality when you hold them.
Images are courtesy of Christie’s.
Would you like to hire Sheila Gibson Stoodley for writing or editing work? Click the word “Menu” at the upper right for contact details.