Enjoy unlimited access: just £1 for 12 weeks

Subscribe now

This 1920s set of pieces from the Allen Hofrichter collection, which was offered at Christie’s South Kensington, London on September 20 demonstrated this ideological theme.

As a symbolic re-enactment of the civil war between ‘White’ imperialists and ‘Red’ communists in the years following the proletarian revolution, the set could hardly be bettered. The White king was represented as Death with black armour, an ermine-lined robe and a bone sceptre, and his queen as Fortune with an cornucopia of gold coins. Interestingly, the white bishops were not represented by orthodox priests, who remained respected by the majority of peasants who had not abandoned their religious faith to the atheist state, but instead by proud princes of the Romanov household. No prizes for guessing that the pawns had been moulded as serfs bound in chains. All were heavily overlaid with black and gilt enamels to remind any player feeble enough to entertain notions that the colour white signified purity and holiness that it also represented the utterly corrupt forces of capitalist imperialism. The red forces had their king as an industrial worker (with apron and sledgehammer) his queen as an agricultural worker, the bishops as commissars and the pawns as collectivised farmers.

Original sets of this type were designed by Natalia Dan’ko for the Lomonosov porcelain factory in Petrograd (later Leningrad) in 1922 (the artist also made other themed chess sets, including the more common ‘Agriculture versus Industry’).

However, the auctioneers doubted whether all the pieces in this set had been made at the former Imperial works during the 1920s because the hard paste of the pieces varied in consistency. The whole was accordingly estimated at £2000-3000, but a Russian expat businessman, apparently with an ironic sense of history, tendered £8500 (plus 17.5 per cent premium) for the set; a sum of money representing almost two years’ wages for his average countryman.