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Paul Morphy's Chess Board and Pieces                                                                                                                 Archives by Title
July 2006

At the May 25, 1859 testimonial banquet given at the chapel of the New York University in Paul Morphy's honor upon his return from Europe, Morphy was presented with a watch and a chess board and pieces. Both were remarkable works of art.

After Morphy's death both the board and pieces were auctioned off and became the property of Walter D. Denegre, a gentleman from New Orleans who acted as a middleman for an unknown client.  For a long time there wasn't any hint of their whereabouts. Then the British Chess Magazine mentioned in it's December 1885 issue that the "gold and silver men were offered for sale to the St. George's Chess Club "at the rather prohibited price of  £1,000."
               The board and pieces are unaccounted for to this day.

A close acquaintance of Paul Morphy who had ample opportunity to study the testimonial gift wrote the following detailed description:


   The chess-men, which are the conspicuous objects of the - "Morphy Testimonial," are of the purest gold and silver, and with the exception of their cornelian pedestals - of those materials alone. In design and execution, as well as in intrinsic value, the set is, so far as we are informed, unequalled - that in the possession of Queen Victoria, though of similar design, being of inferior proportions. The connoisseur will especially remark the exquisite details of the artist's conception. As chess is a regal game, the pieces in this superb set are appropriately modeled after a study of one of the grandest historic episodes - the contest between Christianity and Barbarism. "The Reds," or the gold pieces, are highly-finished statuettes, reproducing the components of an imperial array in the days when Kings and Queens went forth with their armies, and bishops, exchanging mitre and crosier for battle-ax and sword, transferred the war of proselytism from the sanctuary to the field. The "Whites," or silver pieces, in happy contrast, represent the Northern horde, which disputed the domination of Theodosius, or, at a later period, for a while withstood the march of Clovis and Clothilde.

   In detail, the pieces are as follows: The golden King is a statuette, four inches in height, and weighing three ounces; royal robes gracefully falling over his armor; the imperial globe upon his martially defended head; the crown and sceptre at his feet; by his side an elegant shield, and in his right-hand the sword of empire. The Queen, arrayed in character, is of proportions slightly inferior to those of her lord. The Bishops, in the full panoply of warriors, three and a half inches in height, stand perceptibly inclined forward, grasping drawn swords with blades advanced. The Knights, on both sides, are admirably-sculptured chargers, prancing nearly upright, and ruby-eyed. In the rooks, or castles, the artist has adopted the Chinese design, and flanked the rear lines by stately elephants, each bearing an eastern houdah, upon which an elegantly-wrought eagle is spreading his pinions, as if to pounce upon his prey.

   The eyes of both bird and beast are brilliant rubies. The finish of this piece is especially admirable, the artist having achieved a manifest triumph in the contrast, which his fine casting has effected between the coarse hide of the elephant and the tiger-skin mantle of the houdah. This elaborate piece is three and three quarter inches in height, and weighs eighty gold dollars, or, more appropriately, five ounces. The silver King is a happy counterpart to his golden adversary.

   As a leader of the Barbarians, his covering is of bull's hide, and only distinguished from that of his followers by the finer dressing it has received. Disputing the empire with the leader of the opposing host, he, too, wears the imperial globe, upon which rest those emblematic wings with which the Norsemen and the Goths adorned their helmets. The royal emblems lie at his feet, while on his left arm depends a shield inscribed with the defiant motto - Liberty - and in his right he grasps a warlike brand. His Queen is arrayed in proper character.

  The Bishops wear winged helmets and drawn swords, considerably longer than the Roman falchions of their Christian adversaries, their panoply otherwise according with that of their posts. In proportion and weight, these pieces correspond with those of the other side.

   The golden Pawns are statuettes, two and a half inches in height, weighing two ounces. In this piece the artist has elaborated the Roman soldiers - the helmet, buckler, and straight, double-edged sword being exact copies of those borne by men-at-arms of the Western Empire. The silver Pawn is similar in proportion, and a correspondingly exact sculpture of the old Visigoth, wearing upon his body the hide, and upon his head, which he has torn from the wild bull of the Germanian forest. His single weapon is a huge and knotty club, promising a rough encounter for the short blade of his adversary.

   The Pedestal of each piece is polished Cornelian - for the Pawns, a circle of one inch in diameter; for the heading pieces, an oval, one inch and a half in diameter. The value of material worked up amounts to nearly $800, and the entire cost of material and labor is but little less than $500. In the elaborate finish of the historic study, the statuesque proportion, and the exquisite mechanical execution of each piece, the resources of Art have contributed most liberally for the honor of Genius.

   The board upon which the gold and silver chess-men are to stand, likewise manufactured by Tiffany and Co., is a square of twenty-six inches. The body of the board is of rosewood, the squares being of ebony and choice mother of pearl. A slightly raised edge, ornamented by a delicate line of inlaid silver, surrounds the board. Just within this edge another similarly fine line, and a third more heavy, form an agreeable contrast with the rich color of the wood. Three inches from the edge, four tournament lances, in silver, enclose the chequered field - a square of twenty inches. In each exterior angle, formed by the overlapping of the lances, circled by a laurel wreath of gold, exquisitely inlaid, are the letters P.M. in decorated cipher. Midway of the border, from which Mr. Morphy is supposed to play, an inlaid oval plate of silver surrounded by a trophy composed of the standards of those nations whose subjects have been obliged to recognize the sovereignty of a republican champion, bears the subjoined inscription:

Paul Morphy
A recognition of his genius and a token of regard,
His friends and admirers
In New York and Brooklyn.
New York 1859.

Surmounting this plate is a laurel crown in silver, and beneath it a ribbon of the same metal inscribed with "Proeliis ex sanguinatis facile princeps." In the opposite border another plate, oval inlaid silver, and edged by a trophy of lances, battle-axes, spears, and pieces of armor, incloses an engraved sphynx, around which are grouped the name of the committee of presentation, as follows:

Charles D. Mead,
W.J.A. Fuller,
James R. Whiting,
Daniel W. Fiske,
Nap'n Marache,
Thead. Lichtenhein,
Regis de Trobriand,
James L. Graham, Jr.,
Sam. D. Bradford, Jr.,
John Van Buren,
H.R. Worthington,
Frederick Perrin,
Thos. Addis Emmett,
James Thompson,
John S. Dunning,
H. Foster Higgins,
Wm. Walton,
T. Frere.

Similarly situated, on the left hand border, is a third silver plate, circular, supported by sphinxes, ornamented with the armorial bearings of the city of New York. In the opposite border, a fourth plate, of the same metal, emblematically delineates the pyramids, three in number, likewise supported in sphinxes. The centre pyramid, in sections, commemorates the chess champions of all ages, that of the last, and greatest filling the apex, as follows:

La Bourdonnais - MacDonnell
Lopez - Philidor - Salvia
Von der Lasa - Hanstein - Anderssen - Bilgeur
Löwenthal - Szen - Petroff - Kieseritzky - Lange.

The board is paneled and dove-tailed in construction, that no influence of climate or position can possibly affect the integrity of the squares. As a specimen of workmanship, in addition to the felicity of it's design, the fact that the most skillful artisans consumed six weeks in it's manufacture, and another week in polishing it, is pertinent proof of it's superlative excellence. It's cost is not far from $200.

The testimonial, as furnished by Messrs. Tiffany and Co., includes, besides the chess-men and board, a case of rosewood, fitted with artistically-shaped, velvet-lined niches, for the reception of the set when not in use.



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