Saturday, June 16, 2007

Advice to novice eBayers

Most of my chess sets have been bought from eBay. There are some common traps to fall in which seem to keep appearing for ever. I hope that the following suggestions might be useful for people who have not bought collectables from eBay before.

Let us start with the most simple case.

The set is described as following:

Hello dear friend, welcome you visit my ebay item. I am an antique collector, I hope to share the old Chinese and oriental cultures with the people in all over the world. I am currently offering a group of Asian antiques. All of these items come from private collections. Now this time I will show you an exquisite and old treasure! This is a Rare bone carven Chess set and Vintage rosewood box. From the pictures you can see it had a long history. But it was kept very well. With the perfect style, nice design, wonderful workmanship, It is in good condition, no crack and no chip. Look at the pictures you can see the shape is very well; It is really a rare item and worth collecting!!! So wonderful item . Bid with confidence! You will not regret! please don't miss it ! It is most valued. I believe you are a finer buyer. If you know the value of my item. please bid my item. I have many other wonderful collect items on ebay. Please view my other items. If you have any question please tell me. If you are Asian antiques collector, please do not miss so better chance to get it. Enjoying your bidding!!!

It is brand new and has nothing to do with bone or rosewood. It is cast from resin and the box is made of whatever wood painted red. If you happened to buy it, you would still smell the fresh paint when it reaches you. The same is true about all these Chinese sets with "leather boxes". They all are the crappiest crap right from Crapville, CR. Period.

The sellers are con men. They charge $0.99 for the item and $125 or so for shipping. They refuse to compensate shipping costs if you want to return the item.

Rule of the thumb #1: If you see 3 identical antique items listed in the same time by different dealers, the chances are great that they are crap. If there are more identical items, they are almost certainly crap. We will discuss some exceptions below. Stay tuned. The Chinese items in question are simultaneously listed by 10 or more sellers most of the time.

Rule of the thumb #2: Never ever buy anything from anybody who seems to charge the price as shipping cost. This is the practice of con men.


Sometimes Chinese crap is listed in a more respective manner. It still remains crap. Take a look at the following pictures.

The description reads:

Vintage Chess Board and Pieces. Handcarved wood, brass hardware, marble and onyx tiles, dark and light green quartz jade playing pieces. Two drawers, one on each side to store the pieces, there are bands in the drawers to hold each in place but this game is in such pristine condition that it still has the styro foam holders that the pieces originally came in. It folds up and can be carried like a case.

It has nothing to do with Jade. Real Jade is harder than steel and expensive. These pieces are made of soapstone at best. They might be cast from resin or some composite material (grounded stone mixed with resin or whatever). The board is probably not of wood but plastic. If it is of wood indeed, it is not hand carved. It might have been made yesterday. They make them all the time in great numbers. The set is not as bad as the first one but still outright crap.

Ty Kroll recently bought a faux Jade set better than this one (the set is older and the board is finer) for $20. That was a fair price in my opinion.

Rule of the thumb #3: eBay is full of "carved" stone pieces. If you are lucky, they are made of soapstone. Most of them are made of composite materials. These might look and feel quite like real stones but hot needle test will reveal their true nature. Be aware of composite materials.


Lots of modern crap is offered at eBay. I cannot even attempt to cover the riches of this field here but let us examine one more example.

The description reads:

This is a superb and a rare antique 32 piece chess set. This is such an interesting set and we believe something quite special. We are told that it may well date as early as 18th century. These are large chess pieces and we think they are plaster but not absolutely certain. The pieces have been painted more than once it appears although we don't believe they have been recently painted at all. The figures are animals and all are presented in period dress. The pieces are quite beautifully modelled. The king lion has superb detail to face and costume. The bear wears a monk's cowl. Another bear piece has a monkey clinging to his back. There are various chips, nibbles, nicks. Some just nicks to paint. Some pieces missing an ear etc but overall damage given age is minimal and quite age commensurate and there is no damage which detracts from this amazing set. Largest piece measures some 7.6" height and smallest piece is some 4.5" height. This is a very interesting and a highly collectable chess set which is very decorative.

A plaster set from the 18th century, eh? The pattern is known as "Reynard the Fox" and if it was really made in the 18th century, it would have been carved from bone or ivory or wood and cost many thousands of dollars. However, it is a modern set made of resin and very crudely painted black and white. You can buy an identical resin set from here for example: . Please note that the last link points to trustworthy merchants who do not lie to their customers and do not try to sell their goods as fake antique.

I do not want to say that these sets are crap if new. They are sold for $175 in natural resin colour and more than $500 if hand painted. But the crudely painted example above is miserable crap.


EBay is also full of modern ivory sets. They might not be outright crap but are clearly inferior to antique ivory sets. There are two reasons to avoid modern ivory:

1) Ivory poachers with AK47 rifles have brought the elephants to the edge of extinction. Occasional witnesses have good chances to get a bullet, too. It happened to George Adamson for instance. PLEASE do not support this bloody business.

2) The quality of most modern ivory sets is not comparable to antique ivory sets. The master carvers of today use mammoth ivory, not elephant ivory (mammoths are extinct for 3000 years or so and therefore not endangered by ivory hunters).

This is a Chinese chess set, probably made in Hong Kong after 1950. It is post-1947 set (E.U. and U.K. allow import of antique ivory dating prior to June 1947) and the carving of the pieces is nothing to be proud of. There are plenty of these offered in eBay and I for example do not consider them collectable. I am truly sorry for the enormous quantities of material utterly wasted on these sets.

This is another example of a modern ivory set. It is a typical Indian set and might be made of ivory or camel bone.

Rule of the thumb #4: The fact that an item is made of ivory does not mean that it cannot be crap. Ivory is one of the best materials to make chess sets from but even the best material demands good skills to get a good product. Never buy an ivory product which appears to be less than 60 years old!


EBay is also full of modern Indian sets with antique look and feel. They might be quite good but are made in large quantities and therefore are not collectable in my opinion. You can see a good selection of modern Indian sets at Beekay's store . Please note that I do not think that these sets are crap and I have no issues with Beekay's business practices. But many modern overdecorated Indian sets are offered as genuine antique by other sellers. Buy them if you like them but do not expect them to be anything but modern.

The last picture of Advice #4 is of another modern Indian set which was offered as 19th century antique made by some Indian prince.


1) Regency Pattern

These sets were fairly common from the 16th Century to the 2nd half of the 20th Century. The pattern itself has a proud history and the good examples are highly sought after and cost thousands of dollars. However, eBay is full of low-end Regency sets made in the 20th or late 19th Century. Even if some of them are antique, they tend to be rude, not collectable and bad to play with. Do not waste your time to crap like the example on the picture above.

2) St. George Pattern

This pattern was very popular in England from around 1800 to the First World War, possibly later. Plenty of these sets were made and there is still a steady flow of them. Most of St. George sets offered at eBay are low-end. The set above is genuine antique but rather low end, too. Let us take a closer look at the Knight.

As you see, it is rather rudely cut (I would not call it carving). This is a typical low-end St. George Knight. I bought the set for £30, did not like it and sold it for the same amount. Do not ever buy such set for more.

The best St. George sets cost thousands of dollars.

3) Staunton Pattern
The Staunton Pattern was introduced by the famous firm of J. Jaques in 1849. This is the most common pattern in use and is the FIDE official standard. Millions of Staunton pattern sets have been made in more than 150 years and every chessplayer has used them. The pattern varies greatly.

The most collectable Staunton pattern sets were made by Jaques of London in the 19th century. They are good quality sets, very well carved and the best examples cost lots of money. A very rare club-sized ivory set was recently sold for around 40 000 dollars in the auction of the collection of late Dr. Cholet at Christie's.

Many eBay vendors claim to sell sets of "Jaques pattern", of "Jaques quality", "unsigned Jaques", "with Jaques crown" etc. These are weasel words. 99% of these sets have nothing to do with Jaques even if they are antique.

There is no such thing as Jaques pattern. The pattern was named after famous chessplayer and columnist Howard Staunton who strongly advocated the design in the middle of the 19th Century.

High quality sets comparable to Jaques exist. For example, British Chess Company (BCC) made some very good sets in the 19th and early 20th centuries. But they are still considerably cheaper than comparable Jaques sets. Buy them if you want but not for the same price as Jaques.

Jaques signed Staunton sets White King and later both Kings with stamp around the base. The sets were housed in boxes with labels. If you are offered a wooden Staunton set without any signatures then it most probably has nothing to do with Jaques.

Jaques introduced the convention to mark Kingside Knights and Rooks with small red crowns on their tops. Other manufacturers adopted it fast. Such crowns do not indicate manufacturer.

Non-Jaques Staunton sets by good makers (BCC, Whitty, Crays or others) might be perfectly collectable but be aware that there is a large quantity of low end Staunton sets in the market. A 2nd rate Staunton set is next to worthless even if antique.

Some words should be said about Staunton sets in bone. There are very few (really very, very few, most probably less than 10) bone Jaques Staunton sets in the world but you will most probably never see one of these. Do not trust people who offer you bone sets and claim them to be made by Jaques. Take good pictures of the set and send them to the expert.

However, there are many good Staunton sets made of bone by other makers. They might be perfectly collectable and cost hundreds of dollars.

A good quality antique Staunton pattern set in bone.

A very common set encountered at eBay looks like this:

It comes from the 1st part of 20th Century (1920s or 1930s or so). Sometimes 3-4 are listed simultaneously. Buy it if you like it, it is not crap. But do not expect it to be anything special. These sets are sometimes listed as "Victorian". That is not true. They are always made of bone, never ivory. The most ridiculous claim I have seen about them dates one to the 18th Century.

Rule of the thumb #5: If you want to have a lower end antique set of a common pattern, do not buy a set which has ANY damage, however marginal. You will find a set in excellent condition sooner or later (probably sooner).


Buying chess sets by pictures is a risky business. You will want to have a set with minimal damage and know about possible replacements before bidding. Please note that in many cases, the pieces are assembled from smaller parts and these single parts might be replaced as well.

Let us have a look at the following pictures:

It is an interesting 19th or early 20th Century bone Selenus pattern chess set with carved faces. It would cost thousands of dollars in excellent condition. How many faults can you find from the pictures?

It seems to be that at least 5 pieces are replacements. They include 4 Rooks (if all Rooks are from the same stock which they are) and the White Queen. The Rooks come from some English chess set, of completely different pattern. The White Queen is a more complicated issue. Take a close look at it and compare it to other pieces.

You will notice that it has a different base, it's collar is less pierced and it's finial is substantially different from it's Red counterpart.

The stems of the Knights miss decorative ribbon which other major pieces have but I do not know if this is a sign of a replacement or not in this case.

Now, let us take a closer look at these faces.

If all the faces seem to be carved by the same hand then a question arises: how on Earth did they get onto different bodies? The answer is simple: they are glued in. The glue is clearly visible in both pictures of White pieces. This still does not resolve the problem of different crowns of White and Red Queen but is interesting to know.

Now ask yourself a question. Do you want to buy a set with at least 5 major replacement pieces and very suspicious traces of repair on others? If yes, how much money would you spend on it? I considered bidding $100. It sold for more than $1000. I really hope that the buyer knew what he was doing.

Many sellers do not describe all possible faults or replacements in their listings. Some are unable to find them by themselves, some just try to make more money and fool the buyers. Do not hope that you can always send the set back and ask for a refund if you find some hidden faults while examining the set in flesh. In many cases the seller will ignore you. But if you find yourself in such a situation, you should still make as much noise as you can. File a PayPal complaint (the deadline is 50 days from the date of the deal), leave negative feedback and let the Chess Collector's group know about your bad experience.

Rule of the thumb #6: Be as paranoid as you can. Assume that every item has some hidden faults and try to find them. Do not hesitate to ask additional images. Do not hesitate to ask stupid questions like "How do you know it is ivory?", "What makes you believe that the set is antique?", "Is the set complete?", "How experienced with antique chess sets was the person who told you that the set came from the 18th Century? Do you guarantee his words?" and most importantly "Do you guarantee that all pieces belong to the same set from the beginning?" A composite chess set is like a teared up block of stamps. Replacements from other sets mean a considerable loss in value. Sometimes it is a good idea to ask for an image of undersides of the pieces.

Rule of the thumb #7: Be double paranoid with Jaques Staunton pieces! As they were manufactured industrially, many composite sets exist. In the same time, discovering them is harder and sometimes outright impossible from the images.

One more of the sets pictured above has a replacement piece. I do not tell which it is. Try to find it.


Good quality single pieces might also be very collectable. For example, a good condition Wedgewood Flaxman major piece might cost well more than 1000 dollars and George Tinworth pieces cost even more. However, a really wide range of objects is offered as chess pieces. Some sellers just do not know what they are selling (it happens in the other way round, too) and sometimes even specialists make mistakes here.

Some of these objects are:

1) Netsuke figures (a small number of chess sets in "Netsuke style" exist but Netsuke traditionally come in pairs). BTW, most of the ivory Netsuke in the market is made of post-ban ivory. You might try to assemble a chess set from Netsuke figures (it could be kind of fun) but PLEASE use only pre-ban ivory Netsuke.

2) Okimono figures (often come in pairs but that's all, they do not come from sets of 32 pieces).

3) Single pieces in the "John Company" style like this:

The trouble with these pieces is that there is no evidence that they ever belonged to chess sets. They were most probably produced as decorative objects by the same school of craftsmen. The piece above is a very fine one and I am happy to own it but it is not a chess piece. However, they are often listed as chess pieces at eBay. The real John Company chess pieces come with round bases.

4) Many single pieces from all parts of the World resemble chess pieces. I will offer two more examples, one from India and the other one from Dieppe. Neither of them is a chess piece.

These very fine figures come from around 1600 and resemble chess pieces closely. However, they are both single pieces (the bases differ) and most probably just decorative busts.

5) Spillikins were most probably never made to play chess with but chess sets have been assembled from them. Sand or cushions are used as chess boards.

6) According to Alan Dewey, so-called Turkish pieces pictured in the Mackett-Beeson's book were never chess pieces (and that's why no complete sets have survived). However, chess sets have been made in the same style in the later period. One great example belongs to the collection of Jon Crumiller.

7) Decorative objects like in the following two pictures are not chess pieces. They were used to keep needles, hat pins or whatever. But they are not chess pieces.

8) Pieces like this are sometimes listed as 17th century Dutch chess Pawns. Nobody has ever seen other pieces than Pawns as far as I know. I think that they might be weights for small scales or pieces for some other game. But there is not enough information to tell it for sure. Sellers sometimes list them as blacks and whites, leaving the "white" pieces uncleaned from patina. This is ridiculous, of course.

9) And last but not least - the weirdest claim I have ever seen. The object below was listed as a 14th Century chess piece.

Yes, you are right. It is dog poo.