Signed Dutch Colonial Silver Betel Box
Batavia, Dutch East Indies
length: 17cm, depth: 11.5cm, weight: 947g
Importantly, this very fine, solid-silver betel or sirih box is stamped with clear maker’s marks and assay and city marks. Much and possibly most Dutch East Indies silver has no or indistinct marks, giving those items that do have such marks greater significance.
This box is engraved all over with Rococo swirls, arabesques and petal flourishes. At the centre of the hinged lid are two swans on a millpond within an elaborate engraved border.
Over each bolt is an exaggerated knob cast as a plump flower. There are four to the front of the box which secure the locking mechanism to the box, four to the lid and two on the back which help to secure the hinges for the lid.
The original lock is in place but the key now is missing. Inside, there are slots where dividers would have gone to separate the various components of the betel quid.
The inside base has four stamps including a maker’s mark ‘DK’, the letter ‘K’ (upside down) and the city mark for Batavia, a laurel wreath with a sword. The ‘K’ denotes a silver content of at least 833 parts per 1000 (Veenendaal, 1985, p. 86).
A tortoiseshell box with silver mounts that is attributed to the last quarter of the eighteenth century and illustrated in Voskuil-Groenewegen (1998, p. 64) and in van de Geijn-Verhoeventhat (2002, p. 40) is in The Hague City Museum also has a similar set of marks and so presumably is by the same maker. Another box, of similar decoration and form as the example here is in Amsterdam’s Tropenmuseum – see Meulenbeld (1988, p. 189) for an illustration.
On either side are baroque-style cast shell handles. The form of the box is akin to a bible box in some respects: the back of the box is taller than its front and bible boxes so designed generally were not fitted with handles.
The box rests on four, elegant solid-cast silver feet.
The Javanese habit of chewing betel was adopted by the local Dutch and exquisite boxes to hold the nut, the betel leaf and the other accompaniments were commissioned by the Dutch. The Dutch realised early on how important betel was to the indigenous people and how it was an essential part of hospitality including with the indigenous rulers. They quickly incorporated betel use with their dealings with local elites. Paintings that show the wives of Dutchmen at the time often show betel boxes prominently displayed. One such seventeenth century painting by J.J. Coeman which today hangs in the Rijksmuseum shows Batavia’s Cornelia van Nieuwenroode with her husband Pieter Cnoll and two of their nine daughters, one of who is shown holding a jewelled betel box (Gelman Taylor, 2009, p. 42).
The fashion for luxurious betel accouterments and other finery saw the governor-general in Batavia Jacob Mossel issue a decree in 1754 stating that only the wives and widows of the governor-general, the director-general, members of the Council of the Indies and president of the Justice Council were permitted to
use gold or silver betel boxes adorned with precious stones, (Zandvlieyt, 2002, p. 206).
The box here is in very fine condition and is without splits, dents or repairs. The engraving is crisp. It is also a remarkably heavy item for its size, weighing almost a kilogram – certainly there was no economising on silver in its construction.
Eliens, T.M., Silver from Batavia/Zilver uit Batavia, Gemeentemuseum Den Haag/W Books, 2012.
van de Geijn-Verhoeven, M.,
et al, Domestic Interiors at the Cape and in Batavia 1602-1795, Waanders Uitgevers, 2002.
et al, Budaya Indoensia: Arts and Crafts in Indonesia, Tropenmuseum, 1988.
Furniture from Indonesia, Sri Lanka and India During the Dutch Period, Foundation Volkenkundig Museum Nusantara, 1985.
et al, Zilver uit de tijd van de Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie, Waanders Uitgevers, 1998.
collection of Paul Walter; and Spink, London
Inventory no.: 1718
The maker’s and assay marks to the interior of the base.