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A Smoking Pipe Won over the Chessboard

Celia Rabinovitch, PhD, MFA, May 11, 2016

This Friday, May 13, 2016, Christie's New York auctions an extraordinary discovery made by Celia Rabinovitch, a Winnipeg artist, historian, and professor, who uncovered a new work by Marcel Duchamp,(1887-1968) the renowned modern artist who invented conceptual art. Rabinovitch was asked to develop the authentication for the work -- a smoking pipe carved with the name Marcel Duchamp, dated 1944 – by Nikki Lastreto, its current owner, who received the pipe as a gift from George Koltanowski, (1903-2000), the Grandmaster of Blindfold Chess. Ms. Lastreto was George Koltanowski’s editor at the San Francisco Chronicle from 1980-88, and when she left her position to live abroad, he gave her the Duchamp piece as a farewell gift. Koltanowski, who died in 2000, was a Belgian emigre met Duchamp in 1919 and played against him in 1923 at the Belgian Championships. Duchamp played for the French club, Le Cygne of Brussels, while Koltanowski played for Le Cercle Maccabi, the new Jewish sporting club that had recently opened in Antwerp. Jewish sporting clubs were a new development in Europe, tied to the rise of Jewish cultural identity and the quest for statehood.


The young chess prodigy and the artist met again in Paris in 1924, where they worked to create FIDE, The World Chess Federation. In an unexpected twist in 1919, Koltanowski lost to Duchamp at an international tournament in Paris, 1929. He marked the event by keeping the scorebook for over 70 years until his death in 2000. In 1932, Koltanowski began writing for the London-based English language magazine, Chess World, while the same year Duchamp published an enigmatic book on chess with the Russian chess theorist Vitaly Halberstadt, titled Opposition and Sister Squares are Reconciled. From 1937-41 Duchamp wrote a chess column for the radical newspaper Ce Soir, edited by communist and surrealist Louis Aragon, while Koltanowksi, who led chess clubs in Barcelona and Madrid, fled the Spanish Civil War in 1937 by leaving for a chess tour of North America.


During World War II, in 1942 Duchamp escaped occupied France by boat from Marseille to Casablanca. He played chess with himself on the bathroom floor where he slept, waiting for several weeks for escape by plane to Lisbon and onto the Portuguese ship, the Serpa Pinto from Lisbon to Philadelphia. The Serpa Pinto delivered hundreds of refugees from Nazi Germany and occupied Europe to America and Israel, including the child transports or kinder transports that included rock impresario Bill Graham, among others.



In North America, 1938, Koltanowski landed first in Montreal and then in Winnipeg, where he played blindfold chess with amazing skill, earning accolades from the Winnipeg Free Press among other Canadian newspapers. From a family of émigré Polish diamond cutters in Antwerp, Koltanowski remained in North America and was playing tournaments in Havana when the Nazis struck Belgium on May 10, 1940. He lost almost all of his entire family. In Cuba the American consul was so impressed with Koltanowski’s extraordinary skill that he provided a visa to immigrate to the USA. Koltanowski remained in North America playing tournaments and occasionally cutting diamonds on 36th street in Manhattan. Refugees from World War II, Duchamp and Koltanowski met again in New York in 1942 where they founded the Greenwich Village Chess Club, a loose association of four or five individuals. While on the road for competitions, Koltanowksi promoted copies of Duchamp’s portable Pocket Chess Set of 1943 that prefigured other portable chess sets used for travel and entertainment. Koltanowski wrote to chess historian Allan Savage, “Duchamp and I were partners in the sale of his pocket set – he made them and I sold them on my tours- this was in the early 1940’s. But they are all gone now.” At that time Duchamp and Koltanowski shared an office in midtown Manhattan, where Duchamp noted that Koltanowski played all comers for money. On March 10, 1944, Duchamp lost to Koltanowski in a private chess match, most likely at their shared office. Koltanowski noted this game in his Chessnicdotes books. That same year, 1944, Duchamp gave him the carved smoking pipe that embodied their shared passions for smoking and playing chess. However, Duchamp had something even bigger in mind for himself and Koltanowski.


In December 1944, Duchamp opened an exhibition titled, The Imagery of Chess, which he personally organized for the Julien Levy Gallery and the Marshall Chess Club in Manhattan. To kick off the exhibition, he invited Koltanowski, the World Champion of Blindfold Chess, to play against seven surrealist artists, with himself as the referee. In The New Yorker of January 6, 1945, The Talk of the Town focused on Koltanowski rather than the surrealists, especially noting his “phonographic mind” that replayed the opponents’ moves to him. Koltanowski was the star of this art event. In 2005 The Imagery of Chess was revisited in an exhibition curated by Larry List at the Isamu Noguchi Museum – proving the lasting influence of Duchamp’s romance with chess. Koltanowski’s witty and imaginative approach made him “the Liberace of chess” and it can perhaps be said that he was the real surrealist. He even played chess with an elephant on his Chess television show for PBS in 1968.



The Duchamp smoking pipe received authentication from The Paris based Association Marcel Duchamp (composed of Duchamp’s stepchildren from his 1954 marriage with Teeny Matisse, who had previously been married to Paul Matisse's son, Pierre.) The Duchamp pipe will be auctioned at Christie's New York this Friday, May 13, 2016. Celia Rabinovitch’s research and authentication was instrumental in uncovering the pipe and its expression of Duchamp’s friendship with Koltanowski.  Koltanowksi, while neglected in the art history literature, is eminent i

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