Thursday 13 October 2016

Will H. Lyons. Purveyor of chess goods

William Henry Lyons (1849-1932), of Newport Kentucky, was probably the world's foremost chess literature dealer for around 30 years at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. He also wrote a treatise on chess problems; Chess-nut burrs: how they are formed and how to open them, which he published in Newport in 1886.

I was very much intrigued by the footnote on page 172 of R. B. Swinton's Chess for Beginners and the Beginnings of Chess:

Swinton's accusation that Will H. Lyons had `ransacked the bookstores of England, Scotland, various German States and several other countries´ is in fact substantiated in Lyons' own catalogues. 

His Catalogue No.7. Chess Requisites and Works on Chess, issued in 1897, in which he claims to have the largest stock of chess goods in the world, states:

`My agents in the book centres of Europe constantly supply me with Rare and Out-of-Print Works´

`No pains or expense have been spared in seeking for and securing rare and out-of-print works.´

`All that was of value has been purchased.´

`All languages are represented, English, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Latin, German etc. etc.´

`The largest collection of Chess Magazines ever known is offered.´

`I have searched the World for books and have "cornered the market" in the old and scarce works´.

`I have made America the great source of supply for Chess literature.´

etc. etc. 

Lyons' 80 page catalogue, which lists around 1,000 items, certainly backs up these boasts, and he undoubtedly offered the greatest selection of chess literature ever assembled in one catalogue. Lyons' catalogues were only surpassed when Bernard Quaritch also `cornered the market´ by buying up most of the Rimington-Wilson collection sold at Sotheby's in 1928, and offered them in his Catalogue of Rare and Valuable Works relating to the History and Theory of the Game of Chess issued in 1929. This included 1,657 items.


Some sample pages from Lyons' 1897 Catalogue will give an indication of the quantity and quality of his chess literature stock.

Notwithstanding this treasure trove of chess literature, and his world wide network of customers, the chess book trade at the time appears to have been rather slow. Lyons' Catalogue No. 10. Chess Requisites and Works on Chess, issued nearly twelve years later in July 1909, has 96 pages and circa 1,240 items, including many previously listed in Catalogue No. 7

Lyons no doubt replaced sold items but it is clear that many items offered for sale in 1909 were unsold from 1897 as can be seen from these pages from the 1897 (left) and 1909 (right) catalogues.

Today most of the items in Lyons' catalogues would be snapped up in a jiffy, and, going round second-hand bookshops these days, I nearly always find that a Will H. Lyons has been there before me.  

                                         © Michael Clapham

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