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January 27, 2023

Acquisition: 17th-Century Nautilus Cup

17th-Century Nautilus Cup

Dutch and Swedish 17th Century
Nautilus Cup, c. 1650 (etching), c. 1670 (mount)
nautilus shell (nacreous layer with etched low relief), silver, and gilded silver
height: 32 cm (12 5/8 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Washington
Patrons' Permanent Fund

In the 16th and 17th centuries, nautilus cups were among the most treasured objects in chambers of art and wonders (Kunstkammern in German)—collections of natural marvels and skillfully crafted artworks that became popular with princely collectors in Europe. The National Gallery of Art has acquired its first nautilus cup (c. 1650, etching; c. 1670, mount), an extraordinary object that may have been made for a member of the Swedish royal family.

The pinkish white shell, shaped like an oval bowl, is etched with an elaborate design that includes monstrous fish and fantastic birds amid vegetation. The decoration was likely made by a specialist working in Amsterdam around 1650. The shell then made its way to Sweden, where an unknown silversmith created the intricate mount featuring a siren gliding over the ocean. The cup appears to have been one of a pair commissioned during the late 17th century by a collector in Sweden—perhaps even the king. Both cups were recorded in the collection of King Carl XV in the 19th century.

Nautilus cups speak to the emerging globalism of the 17th-century economy: the shell comes from the oceans of the Indo-Pacific region and would have traveled to Europe on a Dutch trade ship.

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