Offered as the opening lot of the sale on Wednesday, the seated king measured just under 3in (7.2cm) high and was made from carved walrus ivory. It was probably produced in Cologne c.1300-1320, making it a classic piece of gothic micro-sculpture.
The chess piece is thought to have come from the same set as another walrus ivory king of very similar, but not identical, form in the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Medieval chess pieces are rare survivors in any case but this example had a particularly prestigious provenance. It formed part of the Robert von Hirsch collection which was sold by Sotheby’s in 1978 for a total of £18.6m producing a clutch of auction records for early works of art.
The chess piece was selected to illustrate the cover of the second volume of the von Hirsch catalogue. At the time, it was described as South Italian and late 13th century, and it sold for £14,000 hammer, an auction record for a chess piece.
In the Treasures sale on July 6, it came with an estimate of £120,000-180,000. Bidding started at £70,000 and soon settled down to a lengthy bidding contest between two telephones, one of which finally secured it at £540,000.
The overall response to the sale was more selective with 23 of the 42 lots finding buyers to net a hammer total of £5.16m.