This fine Dutch colonial betel or sirih box is from eighteenth century Batavia in the Dutch East Indies, and is composed of bevelled amboyna burlwood with silver mounts. This box is believed to have come from Luton Hoo, a famous English country house. The house was acquired in 1903 by Sir Julius Wernher, a leading diamond dealer. After the death of Sir Julius, Harold Wernher inherited the estate from his father. Sir Harold was married to Lady Zia Wernher whose actual name was the Countess Anastasia Mikhailovna de Torby (they married in 1917). She was the daughter of Grand Duke Michael of Russia and a niece to Tsar Nicholas I and was famous for her collection of Faberge. According to a written appraisal dated 1974 which accompanies the box, the box reputedly was owned by the Russian royal family and was inherited by Lady Zia. This is possible – the Russian royal family was an important client of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) during the eighteenth century and many items produced in China and Batavia and trans-shipped through Batavia by the VOC are now in possession of the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, including silver filigree items almost certainly commissioned by the VOC from artisans in China and Batavia. These items were formerly in the collection of the Winter Palace before being transferred to the Hermitage.
The silver corner mounts of the box here are in the form of stylised clouds suggesting Chinese influence. The key-plate is in the form of a double-headed eagle – symbol associated with royalty in Russia and the Austro-Hungarian empire, but also a motif used in South India and Sri Lanka. The fact that the double-headed eagle, a symbol associated with the Romanovs, appears on this box might be intended or might simply be a coincidence.
The box sits on four solid-cast ‘ball and claw’ silver feet. The small bolts used in construction are hidden by prominent silver semi-spherical bolt covers: four on the front, four on the hinged cover, and two on the rear. Fine rococo-influenced, solid-cast and engraved silver handles are attached to each side.
Prominent silver hinge flanges are attached to the inside of the box. These attach the lid or cover to the base.
The bottom of the base, all the interior base, and part of the interior lid are decorated with original old red lacquer.
A related box illustrated in Krohn & Miller (2009, p. 252) which is in the Peabody Essex Museum has similar silver mounts. Another is illustrated in Veenendaal (2014, p. 119).
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 accoutrements 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).
There are no apparent maker’s marks to the silver on this example. The box clearly is of Batavian origin.
The box is in excellent condition. The lid fits tightly and there is no obvious warping or shrinkage. All the silverwork is present. The key is present but no longer works the lock. Some of the small silver rivets which attached the silver plates to the wood are missing but these are tiny and their loss scarcely is noticeable. Overall, this box is an excellent example, with fascinating likely provenance, and is in excellent condition. The box is accompanied by a 1974 appraisal which offers insights on the provenance of the box but much else including on the place of manufacture of the box has been shown to be wrong by later scholarship.
Exhibited: lent to the Captain Cook Museum, Whitby, UK during 2017.
Eliens, T.M., Silver from Batavia/Zilver uit Batavia, Gemeentemuseum Den Haag/W Books, 2012.
Krohn D.L. & P.N. Miller (eds.), Dutch New York Between East and West: The World of Margrieta van Varick, Bard Graduate Center/The New York Historical Society/Yale University Press, 2009.
Veenendaal, J., Furniture from Indonesia, Sri Lanka and India During the Dutch Period, Foundation Volkenkundig Museum Nusantara, 1985.
Veenendaal, J., Asian Art and the Dutch Taste, Waanders Uitgevers Zwolle, 2014.
Voskuil-Groenewegen, S.M. et al, Zilver uit de tijd van de Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie, Waanders Uitgevers, 1998.