Lot 71
  • 71

Maya Shell Pigment Container in the Shape of a Hand Late Classic, Circa 550 - 950 AD

50,000 - 70,000 USD
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  • Queen conch (strombus gigas)
  • Length: 8 in (20.3 cm)


Paul Tishman, New York, acquired before 1967
European Private Collection, acquired from the above on January 30, 1980


Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Before Cortes: Sculpture of Middle America, September 30, 1970 - January 3, 1971
Duke University Museum of Art, Durham, North Carolina, Painting the Maya Universe: Royal Ceramics of the Classic Period,  January 15 - March 27, 1994; additional venues:
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, April 15 - June 26, 1994
Denver Art Museum, Denver, July 15 - September 15, 1994
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, October 8 - January 8, 1995
Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, February 10 - April 23, 1995
Denver Art Museum, Denver, long term loan, 1998 - 2004
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya, April 4 - July 25, 2004; additional venue:
Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, California Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco, September 4, 2004 - January 2, 2005
Denver Art Museum, Denver, long term loan, 2005 - 2017


John F. Scott & Elizabeth Kennedy Easby, Before Cortes: Sculpture of Middle America, New York, 1970, p. 232, no. 199
Dorie Reents-Budet, ed., Painting the Maya Universe: Royal Ceramics of the Classic Period, Durham & London, 1994, p. 43, fig. 2.9 & p. 317, cat. no. 8
Mary Miller & Simon Martin, Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya, New York, 2004, p. 136, pl. 67


Overall excellent condition. Appears intact.
In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective qualified opinion.

Catalogue Note

'...Symbols often convey underlying intangible ideas beyond the immediate visual image; ambiguity can often play an important role.'

Costin, Techné in the Pre-Columbian World, 2016, p. 7

The masterfully conceived conch shell is one of the very few surviving shell pigment containers, used by Maya artists and scribes. Various polychrome and codex vessels show the artist deeply focused holding a brush or stylus and a carved shell container. The conch shell’s undulating form and non-porous smooth interior, lends itself to its function as a bowl to mix pigment, and the elongated ends and cut edges allow the artist to modulate the brush -and ink flow (Reents-Budet, ed., Painting the Maya Universe, 1994, p. 38).

This conch shell is carved in the form of the left hand, with long graceful fingers folded over in graduated line, with the whorl of the shell as the outstretched thumb. The fingernails are shown in varying lengths. This cupped hand gesture is shown on codex vessels where the scribe is motioning toward the codex or book he is creating. The visual and conceptual dynamic of the natural object as an artist’s own hand is a classic interplay of functional form and symbolism with Maya art.

The art of hieroglyphic writing and fine-line painting is one of most sophisticated and eloquent legacies of Maya art. Within most Maya languages, there was no separation between writing and painting, or artists and scribes; Reents- Budet notes that this ‘[…] indicates a conceptual equivalency of these two artistic activities’ (ibid., p. 45). The most esteemed person of the Maya court aside from the king or ruler, was the scribe/artist, given the title ‘ah ts’ib’. The glyphic phrase ‘u-ts-ib’ (his writing/painting) is one of the key phrases within the Primary Standard Sequence on elite polychrome and codex style pottery.

The elite nobility were trained in writing and scribal arts, and their mastery of technique enhanced their status and otherworldly powers. Scribal arts were imbued with supernatural elements, just as the half-brothers of the mythic Hero Twins were the patrons of the art and writing.

For another shell container in the form of a hand, see Lin & Emile Deletaille, eds., Trésors du nouveau monde, 1992, p. 235, fig. 191; see also Reents-Budet, ibid., p.42, fig. 2.8, for a shell container, and ibid., p. 43, fig. 2.10, for a ceramic pigment container made in the form of a conch shell. An Early Classic effigy vessel of a deer from Copan was found with a shell scoop in the shape of a hand (Fields & Reents-Budet, Lords of Creation: The Origins of Sacred Maya Kingship, 2006, cat. No. 106).