A mother-of-pearl plaquette from the Seba collection

Cornelis Bellekin

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A mother-of-pearl plaquette from the Seba collection

Venus with nymph and two cupids by a waterfall

In a pearl oyster shell, Venus, a nymph and two putti are carved in relief. The background is comprised of an engraved woodland scene with a waterfall.

The work bears the signature, c. bellekin F. Its maker, Cornelis Bellekin, probably descended from a family of mother-of-pearl craftsmen. Precious little is known about him, but it is generally assumed that he was born around 1625 in Amsterdam and died there after 1697 but before 1711.

The renowned Amsterdam apothecary, Albertus Seba (1665–1734), was the first known owner of our shell. Despite the great size of his famous collection of Bellekin shells, it formed only a small part of his total collection. Seba, the son of an East Frisian farmer, underwent his master’s examination in Amsterdam in 1697 and was, in addition to being an apothecary, a wholesale dealer in medicines.
He lived in Haarlemmerstraat in a large house known as ‘De Duitsche Apotheek,’ or The German Apothecary’s Shop.


Arnold Houbraken, 1731,
Arnold Houbraken, 1731,
Albertus Seba in his cabinet

Seba based his formulae on animal products and exotic plants. But his interests did not end there. From seafarers, he purchased a great variety of exotica. In the course of the first decade of the 18th century, his collection of birds, lizards and snakes in ethyl alcohol, and that of insects, butterflies and seashells attained immense proportions. In 1711, Seba became a purveyor to Czar Peter the Great. In 1716, he sold his collection to the czar for the, at that time, colossal sum of 15,000 guilders. With Seba’s help, the czar a year later also purchased the collection of preserved animals of the famed anatomist, zoologist and botanist, Frederick Ruysch. A member of the Royal Society, Seba was famed for his wide-ranging knowledge.


Aert Schouman (1705–1798),
Arnoud Leers in his Cabinet

Amsterdam Museum, inv. no. A 18493

Having sold his great collection, Seba began on a new one, and from 1728 started cataloguing it, in the so-called ‘Thesaurus.’ Part I of the ‘Thesaurus’ appeared in 1734, Part II, in the following year, also the year of its author’s death. Shortly before Seba’s death, the Swedish botanist and zoologist, Carl Linnaeus, paid a visit to his collection. The two final volumes of the ‘Thesaurus’ were published posthumously, in 1759 and 1765. Seba’s collection ultimately became dispersed when it came under the auctioneer’s hammer at Amsterdam in 1752.

At the auction, Bellekin’s shells brought premium prices. One of the biggest purchasers was Arnoud Leers, lord of Ameide, Rotterdam alderman and director of trade with the Levant. Leers’ collection was comprised, among other things, of paintings, a cabinet of curiosities and a seashell collection. The latter consisted of purchases made at various auctions, including at that of Seba’s collection. Leers was proud of his Bellekin shells, which are extensively described in his catalogue. All objects from the Seba Collection are given prominent mention, and for many of them, the corresponding volume and page in the ‘Thesaurus’ is indicated.


The Bellekin shells are named and described piece by piece in a separate portion of the catalogue:

“Omitted conches and duplicate shells / Unusual bas-relief [shells] carved and engraved on the inside by the renowned artist C Pelckin [!] and other engravers.”
The shell in question is described under Lot 1424, as follows: “An exceptionally handsome oval, like the one on the recto and bearing a bas-relief on a mother-of-pearl shell representing Venus with her nymphs and two cupids on a rock by a river, &c., by the same artist (the aforementioned C. Belckin), S. 85.11 (Seba, ‘Thesaurus,’ Part III, p. 85, No. 11).” Lot 1425 states: “Like the one on the recto, one equally attractive, with playing wood nymphs, a flute-playing Satyr and three dancing cupids, &c., being a copy, by the same artist, S. 85.9.”


Arnoud Leers’ auction catalogue (1767))

On 13 November 2001, the latter shell, also from the Seba Collection, and represented opposite ours in the ‘Thesaurus,’ was purchased at an auction at Christie´s Amsterdam for € 88,125.00 by the Amsterdam Museum (with help from the Rembrandt Society / Vereniging Rembrandt) in commemoration of the 75th year since its founding.

At the start of the 18th century, Dutch naturalia collections attained great importance as a source of knowledge for naturalists. Seba played a particularly significant role with regard to the research carried out by naturalists. This explains why Linnaeus visited him during his stay in Amsterdam, as well as why Seba was inducted into the august company of the Royal Academy.

The impulse to collect did not disappear during the 18th century. On the contrary, it became even more widespread. Visitors to the Netherlands regarded it as one of that nation’s most well-known pastimes, and even translated the term, liefhebber – in English, devotee – in their reports about such collectors.

The great collectors typically commissioned portraits of themselves together with their collections. Such portraits, e.g., Houbraken’s engraved portrait of Seba and Schoumans’s sketch of
Arnoud Leers, served to represent the knowledge, societal standing, acquired wealth and selfconfidence of their subjects. The auction catalogues of such collections also contributed to the prominence of the collectors. Due to the fame attained by the collection of Arnoud Leers and the great importance which came to be attributed to it, its auction catalogue was ultimately reprinted and published as a book. As a result, as with Seba’s collection by means of his ‘Thesaurus,’ the collection, though dispersed through sale, remained intact – albeit only in book form.

Albertus Seba (1665–1736); his sale, 1752. Arnoud Leers ( – ); his sale at Amsterdam on 14 May 1767 and the following days. Possibly, the collection of Bernardus Nieuhoff Harderwijk; his auction at Amsterdam on 28 May 1832.

Seba, Albertus. ‘Lucopletissimi rerum naturalium thesauri accurate descriptio, et iconibus artificiossimis expressio, per univ. physices historiam. extoto terrarum orbe collegit, digessit, descripsit. A.S. Volume III, Amsterdam, 1758, pl. 85, n°11, ill.’ Albertus Seba, auction catalogue, ‘Catalogus van de uitmuntende cabinetten, met allerly soorten van ongemeene schoone gepolyste hoorns, dublet-schelpen/... nagelaten door wylen den heere Albertus Seba,
Amsterdam, 1752.’ Arnoud Leers’ auction catalogue, ‘Catalogue systematique d’un magnifique cabinet de très belles coquillages .../ Friedrich Christian Meuschen -Amsterdam, 1767, p. 154, n°1424.’ Seters, H.W. van., ‘Oud-Nederlandse Parelmoerkunst, Het Werk van Leden der Familie Belquin, Parelmoergraveurs en Schilders in de 17e eeuw,’ in: Nederlands Kunsthistorisch Jaarboek 9, 1958, pp. 173–237.

Cornelis Bellekin

8,4 x 7,1 cm

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