Rare Man Ray Chess Set Heads to Auction [Update]

Crafted for his wife, Julia, the set goes on the block at Villa Grisebach in Berlin on November 30.

Man Ray Chess Set

Surrealist Man Ray developed a passion for chess after being introduced to the game in the early 1920s by fellow artist and chess fanatic Marcel Duchamp. The duo famously played chess on the roof of the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris for a scene in René Clair’s 1924 film, Entr’acte.

And while Man Ray never rose to Duchamp’s level of play—remaining in the latter’s words “a wood pusher”—his love of the game would eventually take shape in a series of chess sets designed by the artist. Initially, his sets were assemblages of found objects; in time, however, they became works of art that were spare in design, with each piece reduced to an elemental form.

Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp

Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp play chess on the roof of the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris in a scene in René Clair’s 1924 film, Entr’acte.  Photo: Courtesy

While several of Man Ray’s chess-set designs were put into production—in editions of two to 50 with proceeds from their sale benefiting the American Chess Foundation—the one on offer at Villa Grisebach in Berlin on November 30 is unique, having been crafted in 1964 for his wife, Juliet. The set’s 32 ivory pieces—half of which have been dyed red—come in a felt-lined wooden case and carry an estimate of $58,900 to $82,400.

According to the lot notes, “In the present set, the cone-shaped king and queen are each topped with a sphere. Small notches around the top of the otherwise unbroken cylindrical rook suggest castle ramparts. The clean, curved square form of the knight is punctured by a perfect circular hole, and the bishop’s smooth shape is notched; spheres represent the pawns. These smooth forms are reminiscent of sculptures by his friend Brancusi.”

** The chess set sold for €77,500 ($91,250) at Villa Grisebach.

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