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Sotheby's to sell 17th-century amber games board with reputed Stuart royal provanance
Attributed to Georg Schreiber (active first half 17th century), German, Konigsberg, 1607, games board with twenty-eight contemporary draughtsmen. Estimate: £300,000-500,000. Photo: Sotheby's.

LONDON.- This December, Sotheby’s will offer at auction a superb 17th-century amber games board with a provenance that is believed to trace back to King Charles I of England and Scotland (1600-1649). The games board dates from the golden age of amber production in Königsberg and comes to the market with an estimate of £300,000-500,000. It will be offered in Sotheby’s sale of European Sculpture & Works of Art: Medieval to Modern on 5 December 2012.

The games board is thought to have been owned by King Charles I, who may have inherited it from his father King James I (1566-1625) or his elder brother Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales (1594-1612); it later came into the ownership of the Hesketh family of Rufford Hall, Lancashire and Easton Neston, Northamptonshire. According to Hesketh family tradition (recorded in 1855), the board was bequeathed by King Charles I to his close confidant, William Juxon, bishop of London, on the day of his execution, 30 January 1649. If the tradition is to be believed, the games board subsequently descended in the Juxon family and was conveyed to the Heskeths in the 18th century.

The possible Stuart royal provenance is given credence by the superlative quality of the games board. Dating to the first half of the 17th century, the virtuoso classicising reliefs – carved from white amber and placed under translucent red amber – are typical of the best Königsberg work from the period. It is one of the finest 17th century amber objects to survive. Amber has held an important place in the history of Western culture since before Ovid’s poetic description of its genesis in Metamorphoses. One of the earliest recorded references to the material is made by Homer, and his description underscores amber’s status as a luxury material.

Amber objects are recorded in the foremost princely collections of the period. The present games board would have been a fitting possession for the future Charles I or his brother Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales. Most relevant to them would have been the inscription, Zu Gott Allein Die Hoffnung Mein (My only hope is God alone) for this is close to the personal motto of their maternal grandfather Frederick II of Denmark. James I encouraged his eldest son to enjoy board games and gaming was enthusiastically undertaken at a wider level in the Jacobean and Caroline courts. Few courtiers, however, were as devoted as Charles I and it was said that, when, at the height of the Civil War, a messenger arrived to inform the King that he has been betrayed by the Scots to the Parliamentarian forces, he did not rise from his game of chess.

Given the rarity of amber objects in 17th-century England, and the outstanding quality of the present games board, which could only have been owned by a person of great wealth, it seems likely that the present board is the same as that which appears in the 1649-51 Inventory of King Charles I’s possessions. The board can be attributed to the leading practitioner of the day, Georg Schreiber, the celebrated ‘master of royal chess-sets’. It finds its closest comparison in the only known board to be signed and dated by Schreiber, which was sold by Sotheby’s in London in April 1990. The strong similarities between the two boards are conceptual, stylistic and technical; they include the presence of large allegorical relief scenes, single female personifications, all’antica portrait heads and busts of figures in contemporary dress, and the use of silver and painted metal foil. The board comprises a Chess board and a Nine Men’s Morris board to the exterior, a Backgammon board (in two halves) in the interior and 28 contemporary draughtsmen. The date of the board, 1607, makes it the earliest known games board within Schreiber’s oeuvre and arguably the progenitor for all subsequent examples; the first in a distinguished line of virtuoso princely objects. High quality amber objets d’art frequently functioned as diplomatic gifts and it would not have been unexpected for such an object to be sent by the Elector of Brandenburg, who controlled Prussia and therefore the amber supply in 1607, to the court of James I, a powerful foreign monarch and a possible future Protestant ally.

The games board is offered for sale by the Trustees of the second Baron Hesketh’s Will Trust.

Estimates do not include buyer’s premium.

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