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Fine, Sri Lankan Carved Ivory Comb with Traces of Polychrome

Kotte-Kandy, Sri Lanka
late 16th-17th century

length: 10.2cm, height: 11cm



The comb was part of a collection built up over a long lifetime by an elderly collector in Worcestershire, England.

This comb is carved from a single piece of ivory. The pierced central panel has been extremely finely carved to show two entwined, dancing women in Ceylonese dress. The carving is dynamic and almost three-dimensional – a quality not adequately borne out by the photographs. The reverse shows the backs of the dancers and is rendered equally as finely as the front. It has been suggested that the dancers are performing the mangalam, the concluding part of a South Indian and Sri Lankan dance recital, that is performed in a spirit of gratitude for the welfare and prosperity of the world.

The central panel is surrounded by a border of faceted diamonds, and then a row of long fine teeth top and bottom.

Traces of the original red and black polychrome are present.

This comb is remarkable for the quality of its carving and its perfect condition. Very few such combs of this type are in such perfect condition; indeed, most in public collections have broken teeth and other condition issues. For example, see here a related comb is in the Victoria & Albert Museum. The presence of a significant quantity of the original polychrome also is unusual. Few in public collection seem to retain any such remnants. The example here suggests that all or many such combs originally would have been painted.

The comb here is similar to two early examples. One was recorded as being in the inventory of the possessions of the Austrian princess Katharina von Hapsburg (1507-1578), wife of King João III of Portugal, and is illustrated in Jordan & Beltz (2010, p. 89). That example has a similar diamond border around a pierced panel that is similarly dynamic and well carved.

Another early example is one that is listed in the inventory of 1690 of the Royal Danish Kunstkammer. This example is illustrated in Gundestrap (1991, p. 279). This example is perhaps even close to the example here and involves a central panel of two dancing women with similar dress and with similar skill and dynamism shown in the carving.

The Rijksmuseum Volkenkunde in Leiden has a third comb with diamond borders. This example originally was from the Royal Cabinet of Rarities of the Dutch King William I (b. 1772-1843). The Museum says that it does not know how the comb came to be in the cabinet but has given it a dating of 1750-1880 (Rijksmuseum Volkenkunde, 2013, p. 56). The comb, however, is almost certainly a great deal earlier than that given the other related examples.

Overall, this is a superb, museum-quality comb with sound provenance and in remarkable condition.


Coomaraswamy, A.K., Mediaeval Sinhalese Art, Pantheon Books, 1956 reprint of the 1908 edition.

Gundestrap, B., The Royal Danish Kunstkammer 1737, Volume 1, Nationalmuseet, 1991.

Jacquot, C., et al, Les Ivoires, Tardy, 1977.

Jordan, A., & J. Beltz, Elfenbeine aus Ceylon: Luxusguter fur Katharina von Habsburg (1507-1578), Museum Rietberg, 2010.

Rijksmuseum Volkenkunde,  Masterpieces of Rijksmuseum Volkenkunde, Leiden, 2013.

de Silva, P.H.D.H., A Catalogue of Antiquities and Other Cultural Objects from Sri Lanka (Ceylon) Abroad,National Museums of Sri Lanka, 1975.

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