This magnificent Nautilus is a rare and important survival of Netherlandish shell work. Signed by the most prominent master of this craft, Cornelis Bellekin, the shell is of exceptionally large dimensions while exhibiting superb refinement in its carving and engraving. The intricately carved pierced helm at its curl places the present work among a small number of Nautili, for the most part in major public collections, that survive with this feature intact.
Trade and exploration beginning in the late 16th century fostered a fascination for exotic and rare materials, particularly among the seafaring countries of Europe, including the Northern Netherlands. The arrival of these rare and often valuable animal and vegetable materials on European shores encouraged the foundation and development of artists who made sculpture, objets and everyday wares, incorporating these materials into their creations. Shell carvers turned thick-walled shells into works of art by peeling away at the surface to reveal their pearlescent inner layer, which was then carved in relief, or engraved and blackened using wax or ink. Foremost among them was the Bellekin family, a dynasty of engravers founded by Jeremie, who settled in Amsterdam in 1608. His son Jean continued in the metier of engraving mother-of-pearl, passing down the craft to Jan (born 1636) and Cornelis, probably Jan's brother or cousin.
It was Cornelis Bellekin who achieved the greatest fame with his evidently prolific output of finely worked shells. According to van Seters (op. cit., p. 221), the type of shell Bellekin used for his best and most complex work was the Nautilus, unparalleled for its elegant form, artistic windings, and silver sheen. While smaller shell engravings signed by Cornelis survive in relatively large numbers, his Nautili are rare, and rarer still of the same large size as the present shell.
The present Nautilus showcases three characteristic techniques used by Bellekin: cameo carving, relief carving, and engraving. The coloured stripes of the shell are presented beautifully in the carved 'border' dividing the two sides, which forms a decorative pattern of interlocking vine branches. Each side depicts a mythological scene on a pearlescent ground in a combination of relief figures with a black engraved landscape, analogous to the decoration of a turbo shell by Bellekin sold in these rooms on 6 July 2017. Both scenes include nymphs by a shore; though partially concealed by the mounts, one appears to depict the Rape of Europa, while the other may represent Diana bathing with her nymphs. The fourth, most virtuoso, feature of the Nautilus is the decoration of its curl, with a superb openwork helm carving that utilises the natural chambers of the inner shell. This is surmounted by an engraved coat of arms with a double-headed eagle.
Representing arguably the pinnacle of Baroque shell carving, pierced helms are found only in Nautili of the highest quality, and few surviving examples match the size of the present shell. Perhaps the most famous such Nautilus is that signed by Jan Bellekin from the collection of Sir Hans Sloane, now in the Natural History Museum, London. The British Museum preserves an unsigned mounted shell with elaborate helm carving to the curl as part of the Waddesdon Bequest (inv. no. WB.116). Comparable mounted Nautili signed by Cornelis Bellekin featuring the helm are housed in the musée du Louvre (inv. no. OA 561) and the Royal Museum of Ontario (inv. no. 918.104.22.168). While a small number of examples in private collections were listed by van Seters (op. cit.), the present shell is the only such work to have appeared at auction in recent memory.
Due to their status as both natural and artistic wonders, carved Nautilus shells were sought-after curiosities for Kunstkammern and Wunderkammern throughout Europe. Cornelis Bellekin was already famous during his lifetime, and his practice is mentioned in 18th-century accounts. His shells formed part of the famous collections of Petronella de la Court (1624-1707), Simon Schiknvoet (1652-1727) and Albertus Seba (1665-1736). The latter is known to have owned at least two nautili and 12 smaller shells engraved by Bellekin. They are depicted life-size in the catalogue of Seba's collection of naturalia, which was published in four volumes between 1734 and 1765.
Intriguingly, Seba's publication illustrates the curl of a Nautilus with a coat of arms and carved helm identical to the present example, described as a shell depicting the Rape of Europa (Seba, op. cit., pl. 84 and here fig. 1). The same shell was listed in the sale of his possessions as corresponding to the dimensions of the present Nautilus, achieving a price of 150 guilders (van Seters, op. cit., p. 221). The possibility that the present shell could be the very same as that in Seba’s collection is tantalising, yet as van Seters pointed out, there is a discrepancy between the vine seen in the cameo carving of the present shell and the flowers depicted by Seba's engraver (ibid., p. 222), as well as the positioning of two of the figures. While it is possible that the engraving is not entirely accurate, it is equally plausible that Bellekin produced two near-identical shells to satisfy the demand of his distinguished clientele. The present Nautilus has had a long life, and may have been previously mounted as a cup before it was restored with the present mounts in the 19th century. It was clearly valued then as now as a timeless Kunstkammer showpiece.
A. Seba, Locupletissimi rerum naturalium Thesauri accurata descriptio III, Amsterdam, 1758, pl. 84; H. Tait, Catalogue of the Waddesdon Bequest in the British Museum, III. The 'Curiosities', London, 1991, pp. 94-104; W.H. van Seters, 'Oud-Nederlandse parelmoerkunst: het werk van leden der familie Belquin, parelmoergraveurs en schilders in de 17de eeuw', Nederlands Kunsthistorisch Jaarboek 9 (1958), pp. 173-237