The Cleveland Museum of Art acquired a rare seventeenth-century Dutch nautilus cup from an auction of Rothschild family items offered at Christie’s in New York earlier this month.
The cup bears the 1607 mark of the Delft goldsmith Cornelis Jansz van der Burch (act. 1579-1614). Only five other such cups made in Delft during this period are known. It is mounted on an elaborate stand and held snugly in silver gilt ribs, or straps. The open end of the shell is rimmed with a crescent-shaped pouring spout and topped with a growling sea monster topped by a sculpture of Fortuna, the Roman goddess of fortune and luck.
Dutch merchants sailing back and forth to Indonesia in the seventeenth century brought home large, flawless nautilus shells, which were valued as scientific and aesthetic curiosities by wealthy collectors. Metalsmiths in Amsterdam, Delft and other cities turned the shells into elaborate cups, mounted with sculptural depictions of sea monsters, birds and other creatures. The shells were valued because of their unusual spiraling shapes, but also because they embodied the mathematics of the Fibonacci Sequence, in which each new number is the sum of the two preceding ones.
The cup was among the Rothschild items confiscated by the Nazis during World War II. The French Rothschild collections were returned to the family after the war and have been owned by its members ever since. The Rothschild auction series by Christie’s were the first dedicated to items from the French branch of the famous banking family and brought a total of $62.6 million in four sales.
In Cleveland, the nautilus cup joins other works taken from the Rothschilds by the Nazis and later returned before they were sold by the family, such as Diana and Her Nymphs Departing for the Hunt (ca. 1615) by Rubens and workshop, and Frans Hals’s Portrait of Tieleman Roosterman (1634). The nautilus cup will go on display in the museum’s Dutch Gallery (no. 213).