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Duchamp Pipe2

​Marcel Duchamp’s gift –the pipe – to George Koltanowski – Collection of Nicole Lastreto


Marcel Duchamp and George Koltanowski: A Smoking Pipe Won Over The Chess Board
In 1988, Nikki Lastreto, editor of chess Grandmaster George Koltanowski’s daily column in The San Francisco Chronicle, simply called “Chess”, met with George and his wife Leah for a farewell brunch. Koltanowski was a master of blindfold chess and a long time friend of the radical French Dadaist, Marcel Duchamp. Nikki, a native San Franciscan, was leaving her job at The Chronicle to move abroad. Since 1980, she and the elderly Belgian eccentric had formed an affectionate bond and the parting was bittersweet. At his apartment that day, Nikki watched as George went to a filing cabinet and pulled out a faded manila envelope with something in it. He said, “Here is a little something I think you will appreciate. It’s made by my old friend and chess player, Marcel Duchamp. I won it from him when I beat him in a game back in New York.” It was a rough geometric pipe made of briarwood into which Marcel Duchamp had carved his name and the date, 1944. 

Koltanowski passed away in 2000, while Ms. Lastreto was still living overseas. On her return to San Francisco shortly thereafter, fascinated by The Pipe and George's friendship with his chess partner, Marcel, Nikki decided to dive deeply into the provenance. Through researching all of Koltanowski’s many books on chess and interviewing several of his personal friends, the story began to unfold. Since 2012, with the help of artist and historian Celia Rabinovitch, the timeline and details of the relationship between the two men, each so critical to their era, has more fully emerged.

In May, 2015, Antoine Monnier, Duchamp’s step-grandson, and Harvard scholar Paul Franklin of the Association Marcel Duchamp, met with Nikki in New York. After examining the pipe they fully authenticated that it was made by Marcel Duchamp, as a gift for George Koltanowski in 1944. Antoine could remember Koltanowski visiting his family when he was a child, and hence had no doubt of the authenticity of this personally crafted gift. 

                                       Lastreto & Monnier

                                                               Nikki Lastreto and Antoine Monnier

​Duchamp’s friend Brancusi, the famous Romanian sculptor living in Paris, had carved, polished and smoked a similar geometric briar pipe in the 1930’s. In the Roaring Twenties, Brancusi, Duchamp and the Dadaist Tristan Tzara often caroused in Paris, smoking their pipes, drinking, and attracting women with their clever talk and irreverent behavior.  In 1946, Duchamp gave a similar carved pipe to Italian artist Enrico Donati, who had immigrated to America. Donati’s pipe has the same geometric incisions as the pipe that Duchamp gave to Koltanowski. The front of the bowl is inscribed,  "Marcel à Enrico". Again, the pipe’s form recalls the rough ebauchon blank of its origin. 


​ Brancusi Pipe Constantin Brancusi (Hobita, 1876 - Paris, 1957)
 Precious wood 4 x 15.2 x 3.4 cm (1 5/8 x 6 x 1 3/8 in)
 "PIPE" PRECIOUS WOOD Provenance: Formerly collection Dumitresco Natalia and
Alexander Istrati, gift of the artist. By descent to the present owner 


Marcel Duchamp, Pipe for Donati, 1946. Collection Enrico Donati, New York © 2000
Succession Marcel Duchamp, ARS, N.Y./ADAGP, Paris

But what was the origin of The Pipe gifted from Marcel to George?


Koltanowski Chess Olympiad

First Chess Olympiad (Ephemerides, July 12, 1924) George Koltanowski is in the middle row
third from the left (in light suit) and Marcel Duchamp is at the top right

Marcel Duchamp first met George Koltanowski in 1923, when the19 year old chess prodigy won the Belgian tournament in Ghent. George played for the Cercle Maccabi, the Jewish sporting club of Antwerp, against Le Cygne of Brussels, the French club to which Duchamp belonged. Duchamp went on to become the enfant terrible of the art world, outraging bourgeois society in Paris and New York, while Koltanowski became a chess Grandmaster. They met again in Paris in 1924, where they both helped to create FIDE, The World Chess Federation.

In an unexpected twist in 1929, Koltanowski lost to Duchamp at an international tournament in Paris, an event which gave Duchamp bragging rights for years to come. Koltanowski marked it by keeping the scorebook until his death and mentioning the game in his three volume Chessnicdotes (1978), where he also relates the story of his wins in 1923 and 1944 to Duchamp. He doesn’t focus on his loss of 1929, perhaps succumbing to professional vanity by brushing it aside: 

Marcel Duchamp, the renowned artist, (Nude Descending a Staircase), loved the game of chess. He played in the French Championship on a number of occasions, was a member of a French Olympic team, and his book, ‘L'Opposition et les Cases Conjuguées Réconciliées (1932)’ was very successful. His painting of a family chess game in the garden, which hangs in the Philadelphia Museum, is one of the more famous paintings including chess as its theme. He helped the American Chess Foundation tremendously with his works of art and getting the support of the New York elite…. I played him twice in Brussels tournaments, winning in both cases. In Paris, 1929, I lost, and in one game, March 10, 1944, the following occurred:” 

                                         Koltanowski's/Duchamp game record

Koltanowski’s record of his game with Duchamp when he won the pipe
                                                              on March 10, 1944, Chessnicdotes, p. 42

                                     Koltanowski's handwritten score

                                     George Koltanowski’s handwriting in original scorebook for 1929 Chess Olympiad,
                                                          record of game with Marcel Duchamp when Duchamp won.
                                                                              From the collection of Nicole Lastreto.

In 1932, Koltanowski began writing for the 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 while Koltanowksi, who led chess clubs in Barcelona and Madrid, fled the Spanish Civil War in 1936 by leaving on a chess tour of North America. In 1942 Duchamp escaped occupied France by boat from Marseille to Casablanca, where he waited several weeks to finally fly to Lisbon where he caught a Portuguese ship, the Serpa Pinto, and sailed at last to New York.

Meanwhile, Koltanowski, from a family of diamond cutters in Antwerp, was playing tournaments in Havana when the Nazis struck Belgium in May 1940. He lost almost his entire family. The American consul in Cuba was so impressed with George’s extraordinary skill that he offered him assistance with 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 and they founded the Greenwich Village Chess Club, which was a loose association of four or five individuals. While on the road doing tournaments, Koltanowksi promoted 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.” 

Duchamp and Koltanowski shared an office in midtown Manhattan, where, on March 10, 1944, Duchamp lost to Koltanowski in a private chess match. As a reward, Duchamp gave him the carved smoking pipe, the embodiment of their shared passion for smoking, reflecting, 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. 

Soon after the exhibition, Koltanowski met his future wife, Leah, and in 1947 they moved to California. He charmed everyone with his populist touch and large friendly face, which conveyed a ready sense of humor and resembled a living caricature. At the same time Duchamp had fallen for a dramatic Brazilian artist, Maria Martins, who loved him but was married with her own professional life. Duchamp’s later work conveys his obsession with her. With his elegantly carved features and detached manners, his charisma, sharp insight and pithy phrases, Duchamp always maintained his coolly patrician demeanor.

Duchamp and Koltanowski’s friendship lived through encounters in France, New York, Brussels, and San Francisco, and included three decades of chess tournaments, informal clubs, and witty chess enterprises. The lifelong exchange between the art trickster and the chess magician was a love triangle with the game of chess - and a mysterious smoking pipe at its center. 


                                                                  George Koltanowski 1940


                                              Marcel Duchamp (With Pipe) - Photo by John D. Schiff