A nautilus cup

the shell probably carved in Amsterdam, mid-17th century, the Chinese figurines Qing Dynasty | the silver-gilt mounts: German, 1680-1700

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A nautilus cup

The nautilus shell, with two pinned vertical engraved silver gilt strap mounts, constructed to fit closely over the edge of the shell, forms the bowl of a standing cup. The conchiolin is elaborately carved in the cameo technique in the Indo-Chinese manner, being set in silver gilt mounts that both protects and integrates this object. The Kangxi period soapstone figure, represents Luo-Han standing on a square silver gilt cushion with tassels on each corner, mounted on an octafoil lobed rock crystal base with a forged silver gilt rim inset with red glass diamond-cut stones. A small soapstone figure of a seated monk is mounted on top of the shell.


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.

A collector of Kunstkammer objects was always on the lookout for the following elements: naturalia, artificialia, mirabilia and scientifica, i.e. objects with their origin in nature, the arts, the extraordinary and science.

The shell itself was a wonder of nature; artificial, artistic or just art was the decoration on the shell and its mounts. Extraordinary and marvellous was the whole piece. The scientific component was in the form and its intersection, which was known to the connoisseur and formed a mathematical puzzle.

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, objects 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 Jean 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. n° 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.

Jacques Moyet

In the 1859 sale catalogue  of the collection of Jacques Moyet of Amsterdam this cup is hailed as a Pièce précieuse (precious piece). Under the entry for lot 546 the present nautilus cup is described as follows: Un nautilus ciselé en forme de coupe, sur pied de figure chinoise en steatite, christal et vermeil orné de rubis (a nautilus, chiselled and mounted as a cup, on a figural foot shaped as a Chinese standing on rock-crystal base, decorated in silver-gilt, set with rubies). The following lot in the Moyet sale is an identical nautilus shell but engraved by Cornelis Bellekin.


Collection Jacques Moyet (1781-1858), Amsterdam;
His sale, Amsterdam, Mr. Cornelis F. Roos, Hôtel dite Huis met de Hoofden, Keizersgracht, 13 April 1859, lot 546;
With Bernhard Stodel, Amsterdam, by 1970;
Private collection, the Netherlands, acquired from the above

Catalogue de la Collection d’Antiquités et d’Objets de haute Curiosités, receuilli par feu Monsieur Jacques Moyet, d’Amsterdam […], Roos, De Vries, Engelberts, 13 Avril 1959, lot 546;
Exhibition catalogue, 22ste Oude Kunst- en Antiekbeurs, Delft;
Antiek Vol. 5, June 1970, n° 2, p. 49 and ill.

the shell probably carved in Amsterdam, mid-17th century, the Chinese figurines Qing Dynasty
the silver-gilt mounts: German, 1680-1700

32 cm high

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