NETHERLANDISH, PROBABLY AMSTERDAM, MID-17TH CENTURY AND LATER
carved nautilus shell, with associated silver gilt and rock crystal mounts set with pastes, and two Chinese soapstone figures, early Qing Dynasty
32cm., 12⅝in. overall
shell: 14 by 18cm., 5½ by 7⅛in.
Overall the condition of the shell is very good, with minor dirt and wear to the surface consistent with age. There is an area of loss to the interior of the shell at the bottom of the curl below the helm carving. There is a small hole to the shell at the top of the opened curl, and a small natural hole further down. There is a very minor stable hairline fissure to the rim of the shell at the far side. There is some minor dirt and discolouring to the shell around the mounts. There are a few minor whitish residues in the crevices of the shell carving. There are a few small chips and abrasions to the inner curl, including at the top of the helm carving.
There is a reattachment to the upper soapstone figure with some glue residue, visible at the back, and there is a smaller reattachment at the front. The head of the lower soapstone figure appears to be reattached. There are a few small chips to the drapery of this figure.
There is minor tarnishing to the gilt mounts throughout. The 'cushion' and the lower soapstone figure rotate slightly in their settings. A reddish wood mount is visible underneath the 'cushion'. Two of the pastes on the cushion appear to be replaced; one appears to be a soapstone fragment. There is an open split with a minor loss to the rock crystal, and the rock crystal is not quite even with its setting.
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.
NOTWITHSTANDING THIS REPORT OR ANY DISCUSSIONS CONCERNING CONDITION OF A LOT, ALL LOTS ARE OFFERED AND SOLD "AS IS" IN ACCORDANCE WITH THE CONDITIONS OF SALE PRINTED IN THE CATALOGUE.
J. Moyet, Amsterdam;
his sale, Amsterdam, 13 April 1859, lot 516;
with Bernhard Stodel, Amsterdam, 1970;
private collection, the Netherlands, acquired from the above
Carved and mounted nautilus shells were among the most sought-after Kunstkammer curiosities in European collections. This intriguing Nautilus Cup exemplifies the sense of exoticism with which these enigmatic objects were perceived. The magnificent carved shell is a rare example of its kind. Of large size and with elaborate cameo relief, it is further exceptional for the helm carved into its inner chambers.
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. The carving of shells was particularly prevalent in Amsterdam, where the famous Bellekin family of shell carvers created some of the craft’s finest works.
Shell carvers turned thick-walled shells into works of art by peeling away at the surface to reveal their nacreous layer. The technique used to achieve cameo relief, in which the striped outer layer of the nautilus stands out against the pearlescent background, was etching. With its elaborate cameo carving depicting intertwining foliate tendrils and vine, the present nautilus relates to works signed by members of the Bellekin family from the second half of the 17th century. Compare, for example, the cameo decoration of the celebrated nautilus shell signed by Jan Bellekin from the collection of Sir Hans Sloane, now in the Natural History Museum. Particularly close stylistic parallels for the carving of the present shell are found in unmounted shells by anonymous makers in Brunswick (Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum) and Vienna (Kunsthistorisches Museum, inv. No. 4133), both dated by Mette (op. cit., p. 206) to the mid-17th century, as well as a third example published by Georg Laue (op. cit.). It is likely that these were created in the same milieu as the Bellekins.
According to Hugh Tait (op. cit., p. 99), ‘few nautili with pierced helms have survived’, making the present nautilus a valuable testament to this legendary carving technique, which utilises the natural chambers of the inner shell. Famous examples of nautili with exceptional openwork helms are the above-mentioned Hans Sloane shell, an unsigned mounted shell preserved in the British Museum as part of the Waddesdon Bequest (inv. no. WB.116), and a number of nautili by Cornelis Bellekin, including one sold in these rooms on 5 December 2017 (lot 102). Although it is not as elaborately pierced as the helms in the above survivals, the presence of a helm carving on the present shell is testament to its maker’s remarkable skill.
Like similar surviving examples, the nautilus may once have been unmounted. Its present mounting as a cup showcases the cameo relief and helm carving to dazzling effect, while the Chinese soapstone figures forming the stem and surmounting the shell highlight the exotic nature of the nautilus. It is unclear when the shell was mounted in its current form, but this must have occurred prior to 1859, when the Cup was sold as part of the J. Moyet collection in Amsterdam. Datable to the early Qing Dynasty, the soapstone elements would have been made before the 1720s, and the silver-gilt and rock crystal foot, as well as the orientalising cushion, may possibly have a similar dating. The mounts holding the shell in place appear, however, to date to the 19th century, so it may be argued that older elements were used to create a striking Kunstkammer showpiece for a growing community of collectors. As such, the Nautilus Cup is reminiscent of works from the fabled Rothschild collection which later became the Waddesdon Bequest - perhaps the ultimate Cabinet of Curiosities of the 19th century.
H. Tait, Catalogue of the Waddesdon Bequest in the British Museum, III. The 'Curiosities', London, 1991, pp. 94-104; H. Mette, Der Nautiluspokal: Wie Kunst und Natur miteinander spielen, Munich, 1995, nos. 92 and 93; G. Laue (ed.), Exotica, cat. Kunstkammer Georg Laue, Munich, 2012, no. 63