This elegantly proportioned box is six, large; flat sheets of ivory that have been pegged together with tiny ivory pegs and with silver corner plates and a silver plate or escutcheon.
Most probably, it served as a betel box and has its origins in 18th century Batavia, in the Dutch East Indies.
Ivory betel boxes are relatively rare. More typically, they are made of wood. Ivory betel boxes often were mentioned in eighteenth century inventories of the goods and chattels and estates of Dutch colonial administrators but relatively few have survived.
Possibly the example here was made for a Dutch colonial administrator or his wife – the Dutch took up the local habit of chewing betel in the Dutch East Indies during the 18th century.
The silver fittings are unmarked and unadorned. The escutcheon is oval but the key no longer is present.
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).
In terms of condition of the example here, the ivory has a superb honeyed patina associated with significant age and use. There is no warping. The lid fits relatively well and evenly. There are no cracks, chips or restorations. It is a particularly pleasing box.
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