Exhibit features world's rare chess sets

Sunday, May 19, 2002

PHILADELPHIA -- In one match, the communists fight the capitalists, whose laborers are bound in chains.

At the next table, Napoleon and Josephine take on Henri IV and Marie de Medici for their place in French history.

Across town, modern battles spring up on chess boards made with Legos, Muppets and even Ecuadorean nuts.

"I think it's interesting that across all those cultures, people seem to be interested in the same type of leisure activity, the same type of diversion," said Amanda Hall, a spokeswoman for The National Liberty Museum, where 80 folk-art chess sets are on display through the end of the month.

Miniature art forms

At least three such exhibits are planned in the Philadelphia region this month, thanks to a biennial gathering that will bring some of the world's top collectors -- and their prized possessions -- to town.

"They're miniature art forms. They're miniature sculptures, if you will," said Floyd Sarisohn, a 73-year-old lawyer from Commack, N.Y., who is perhaps the largest U.S. collector.

He and his wife, Bernice, who played chess while they were courting, have more than 1,000 sets in their home collection.

"She decided to buy us an engagement present of a set. That was the wrong thing to do," said Sarisohn, a founder of Chess Collectors International, which meets in Philadelphia starting May 21. "It's become an obsession, the collecting of it."

Chess was invented in India in the 6th century as a game played by four teams. The game evolved as it spread to the Middle East and Europe, where it became a favorite game of Renaissance royals. And by the 18th century, chess had trickled down to the masses, while the nobles immersed themselves in cards.

"In the 18th century, when chess became less popular as a game, the pieces became more decorative and less functional," said Donna Corbin, an assistant curator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art who is putting together a show called "It's Your Move," which opens Saturday.

Sarisohn has lent the art museum a prized set called "The Communists and the Capitalists," a marvel of propaganda made in St. Petersburg in 1922, a few years after Lenin gained power.

On the black team, the capitalist king is depicted as the grim reaper, its pawns by laborers enslaved in chains. The red team's king is a robust laborer, the pawns earnest workers with Soviet sickles on their shirts.

Another propaganda piece, the set featuring Napoleon challenging 16th-century French King Henri IV, was made during Napoleon's reign.

"Napoleon is essentially saying that he was as good as these royals of the earlier period," Corbin said.

A number of 20th-century artists became chess set designers -- and, in some cases, players -- because of surrealist Marcel Duchamp's love for the game. Duchamp virtually abandoned painting by the 1920s to play chess professionally and write books on the game.

The art museum exhibit includes an elegant, abstract set crafted from birch by Man Ray and a sensuous boxwood set by Max Ernst in which the queen is taller than the king.

"It's very interesting because the queen, in fact, has a more important role in the game itself," Corbin said. "Max Ernst was trying to represent in his chess set the reality of her position."

In Millville, N.J., the Museum of American Glass at Wheaton Village has an exhibit of glass chess sets underway that boasts a ninth century Islamic set.

The piece seems worlds apart from the fun, folksy sets at the National Liberty Museum, but Hall isn't so sure.

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