Dr Holger Langer works as an in-house lawyer for a German company in Hamburg that provides real estate and fund management services. He is also an avid collector of antique chess sets and chess-related material and recently wrote a book titled On the Collecting of Chess Sets.
Here he tells ATG about his collection and how it began with an 18th century set found on eBay.
ATG: Do you play chess?
Holger Langer: As a child, I grew up in a small village in northern Germany and we did not have a chess club. I used to play with my dad, but at a very low level. Nowadays, when I find the time, I like to spend it studying chess books and solving chess puzzles. And occasionally I play a game against a friend or neighbour, but I have never participated in chess tournaments.
How and when did you get the collecting bug?
I guess I was already born with a collecting bug. As a child I collected stamps, coins, postcards and many more things. Antique chess sets became a passion some years ago.
What drew you to chess sets in particular?
Chess has a special and fascinating aesthetic. The incredible complexity of the game is contrasted by a relatively simple and clear design: a board with 64 black and white squares and 16 pieces of each colour.
Despite this simple starting point, chess offers by far the greatest variety in the design of the game material. Some chess sets are made very intricately from the most precious materials or depict certain events or persons, meaning that they are designed more for decorative purposes. Other sets are designed specifically for competition. It is this variety that especially appeals to me.
Which set started your collection?
My first antique chess set was an 18th century wooden Dutch set. I discovered it by chance on eBay and was immediately fascinated. It was entirely different from the ‘common’ chess sets I had known until then.
I still remember the moment it arrived. When I opened the box, I was greeted by a slightly musty smell, the kind you get from old churches or museums. You could literally smell the age of the chess set.
It fascinated me so much that from that moment on I started to find out more about this set. In the process, I gradually discovered how many different styles and shapes of chess pieces exist and from that moment on I was lost.
How many sets do you own?
The collection currently comprises about 250 chess sets.
How would you describe your collecting habit?
For me, collecting is inseparable from an enthusiasm for history. When I acquire an antique chess set, I feel like its curator as long as it is in my collection. I want to find out more about it and want to share this knowledge with other collectors.
What aspect of collecting gives you most pleasure?
I like the hunt for rare chess sets, which occasionally comes with the satisfaction of having found a special bargain. And I love the detective and pioneer work – researching and finding further information that no one has found and made available before.
Are you still adding to your collection?
Absolutely! Only recently I acquired two extremely collectable German chess sets from the early 20th century from a collector friend in the UK.
Where do you find items to buy?
In the beginning I mainly searched and bought on online marketplaces such as eBay and Etsy. However, high-quality sets are more likely to be found in established auction houses or at specialised dealers. In addition, I often buy and trade directly through the many contacts I have built up over the years in the collector community.
What do you look for when considering a set to add to your collection?
In the past, I bought everything that appealed to me. But that quickly became too much, which is why I now concentrate largely on antique chess sets. For me, this includes everything that was made before the Second World War.
In addition to age, criteria such as material, condition, rarity, possibly also a certain manufacturer or origin can be relevant.
Besides these rather objective criteria, however, it remains essential that I like the set and find it attractive. It therefore happens that I turn down sets that are old, rare and valuable because I don’t like them enough, or I acquire sets that I like a lot, even though they don’t actually correspond to my collecting focus.
What is the most you have ever spent on an item for your collection?
That’s a question I probably shouldn’t answer because my wife might read the interview and that would get me into trouble. But I once paid a friend about €15,000 for some particularly beautiful antique chess sets.
Do you use the sets you collect to play chess games?
Yes, I certainly do. There is something very special about replaying a historical game with a contemporary chess set such as a game by Philidor* with French Régence pieces from the 18th century. But I don’t do that every day and also rather rarely with particularly fragile pieces.
However, I recently found out that I can use 19th century ivory pieces very well on my DGT Centaur chess computer. That opens up completely new possibilities.
Do you collect other chess-related items?
Yes, I also have about 30 chess clocks, 60 books on antique chess pieces and chess history, and several hundred smaller publications, including about 100 auction catalogues and many back issues of Chess Collector magazine.
The most significant item among these is probably an original chess clock made by Paul Posingis and used in the 1936 Chess Olympiad in Munich. It is the only specimen I am currently aware of.
How do you store and display your collection?
I keep my most valuable and beautiful chess sets in various display cases. Just recently, my wife generously allowed me to have two more glass display cases in our living area. Unfortunately, the number of sets has grown so much over the years that many are stored away in cabinets and drawers.
How do you decide which things to sell and which to keep?
There are some pieces that are very precious to me for personal reasons. I would not sell these without necessity. I am less sentimental about the others.
I have sold part of my collection (and still am) because it no longer falls within the focus I developed later. I had some chess sets that were much better suited to friends’ collections.
I also find it nice when collectables find their way back to their ‘home’. I once had a quite rare set designed and made in the late 19th century by Ludwig Sigismund Schmitthenner, a German engineer. I was approached by a descendant of the family, most of whom reside in the US these days, and now the chess set has become a true family piece again.
Is there a set you sold that you later regretted selling?
No, never. Fortunately, I have never been in the situation where I had to sell individual pieces for financial reasons. Therefore, the decisions to sell special pieces from the collection were always particularly well-considered and those sets went exclusively to consciously selected buyers.
What advice would you give a young collector?
I would advise a young collector to do three things: first, quickly develop a focus that suits your interests. Quality over quantity.
Second, gather background information and educate yourself. Without background knowledge, collecting quickly becomes arbitrary.
And most importantly, thirdly, don’t be put off by valuable collections because you think you can’t achieve them.
Because of the great variety, there are suitable collecting areas for every budget. A passionately assembled collection of inexpensive comic chess sets for which background knowledge has been compiled and presented can be just as valuable from the collector’s point of view as century old pieces made of fine materials.
Why did you decide to write a book about collecting chess sets?
There were a couple of key reasons for the book. Firstly, I was repeatedly approached by young collectors who felt very insecure and had little knowledge. They wanted to collect, but didn’t know how to start so the book provides some basic information on patterns and styles, materials, known manufacturers and so on, as well as ideas for a collecting focus.
Secondly, to my knowledge, there has been no book on antique chess pieces that has attempted to bring together the greatest possible number of sources and provide references.
With my book, I have thus attempted to provide a low-threshold introduction to the collecting of chess pieces for beginners, as well as a semi-scientific resource for more experienced collectors.
I was also determined to make it as accessible as possible, so it is available not only as a paperback and a hardback but also as an e-Book.
* François-André Danican Philidor (1726- 1795), a French composer and renowned chess player.