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A magnificent chess set: Precious addition to Dresden's treasure trove

A visitor looks around the Silver Gilded Room of the Historic Green Vault in the Residence Palace / Photo: Oliver Killig/dpa-Zentralbild/dpa
A visitor looks around the Silver Gilded Room of the Historic Green Vault in the Residence Palace / Photo: Oliver Killig/dpa-Zentralbild/dpa

Dresden's Green Vault preserves unique treasures once made by masters of the art of treasure. However, some of the items listed in inventories are missing - and now there is a replacement for one of the showpieces.

On the occasion of its 300th anniversary, the Ernst von Siemens Kunststiftung (Berlin) has made a very special gift to the famous Schatzkammermuseum Grünes Gewölbe in Dresden. It acquired a Baroque masterpiece that had been in private hands for centuries - as a permanent loan for the collection. The luxurious chess set from the time of the museum's founder, Elector Augustus the Strong, is made of ivory, ebony, tortoise shell and silver, as director Marius Winzeler said at the presentation on Thursday. It is "a unique showpiece of the European treasure art of the Baroque" and stands for the cooperation of the Dresden court art at the end of the 17th, beginning of the 18th century with the Augsburg goldsmiths. Moreover, it fills a special gap. "According to historical inventories, at least three comparable chess sets were part of the inventory at the time, but they were lost."

The figures of ivory and ebony, white and black, measuring a maximum of eight centimeters, were "very probably" created by Saxon sculptor Paul Heermann, Winzeler said. A clue to this, he said, is that the inscription "Her/mann" is found on one of them. Augsburg goldsmith Paul Solanier set the miniature carvings and made them "silver pedestals," he said. The 56.5-by-56.5-centimeter board casket with fields of green-dyed ivory and tortoiseshell also has silver inlays.

On the occasion of the founding anniversary, there could be "only one unique gift that was already expensive at the time of its creation," said Martin Hoernes, secretary general of the Ernst von Siemens Cultural Foundation. "We paid a little under a million euros." That, he said, was "an appropriate price for an extraordinary piece." Connected to the gift to the Green Vault, he said, is the task of researching who its original owner was and whether Heermann was really the creator of the figures. According to Winzeler, the work of art was "completely unknown until 2018, and was also never published."

In the 18th century, it belonged to an Augsburg banker who worked for various courts and also took precious items as collateral for the emperor in Vienna. One such could also have been the Prunkschach, "which was then no longer redeemed". It was in the possession of the banking family until 1920. It appeared on the art market when their descendants had it auctioned at Christie's London in 2018. Now it's on display at Dresden's Residenzschloss, "in top condition, everything meticulously preserved," Winzeler said. "It was probably more or less forgotten."

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