This unique, whimsical object on attached pedestal is a large coconut shell carved into the form of a three-handled serving dish. The inscription on the accompanying box suggests that it is intended for sweets. At the base of each of the three handles is an elongated cartouche, enclosed within exuberant vine-like vegetation intended vaguely to suggest the West, containing figures in Dutch costume. One shows a male-female pair, the man wearing a wide-brimmed hat, the traditional short jacket, gartered knee britches, and high stockings, who leans on the iconic walking stick; his female companion sports a long, pleated cape (Japanese were fascinated by pleated garments). Another cartouche shows a caped Hollander standing stiffly en face. He is accompanied by a diminutive servant. To the Dutchman’s proper right is a curious multi-footed pedestal surmounted by a Western-style wig (nearly identical to the hairstyle exhibited by the female figure just described). The third cartouche, its shape strongly resembling the Indian chaitya arch, depicts a seated Dutchman stiffly seated on a European corner-chair. Above him a bizarre composite figure with a masklike face, two legs and wings, clutches in its two hands in heraldic fashion a swirling branch-like object as if to crown or anoint the principal figure.
Even more arresting are the three ovoid cartouches that alternate with the images of the Hollanders. Each bears a fantastical composite animal. In one, two recumbent quadrupeds face each other across a cross. They have the floppy ears of a rabbit, lamb-like faces, clawed feet, and long, trifurcated tails. Another cartouche combines a spiny fish with what looks like the comb of a rooster and the beak of a parrot. It resembles monsters seen in Indian or Southeast Asian art. The third, a fish with the suggestion of a smile on its lips, appears to be emerging from the ubiquitous vegetation. Its body encloses four Roman letters that may spell naua.
The hexagonal design on the bottom shows a woman looking through a window onto a garden, complete with tree, pond, and lantern, at two men. It is vaguely reminiscent of Chinese compositions of beauties in pavilions overlooking a garden setting.
The eclecticism exhibited in this piece is one of its most interesting features. One has to wonder what the designer could have been consulting to come up with such an unlikely mélange of motifs.
Although the carving of coconuts is universal wherever they grow, quality pieces with European subjects are found but rarely, sometimes with religious subjects particularly in Mexico and in certain European nations. Fine Dutch carved coconut chalices mounted on silver are known, particularly important being the 16th century piece carved with scenes of Samson and Delilah, Susanna and the elders, and Lot with his daughters, signed by Cornelius de Bye (d. 1598) (Walters Art Museum 57.1046).
Two similar fine Dutch silver-mounted pieces carved with the Garden of Eden, and the Conversion of St Hubert, were sold in Christie’s’ King Street rooms on 5 July 2000, Lots 4 and 5.
A 17th century Dutch carved coconut mounted in silver as a cup and decorated with figurative scenes is in The Cleveland Museum of Art, accession number 1977.77, go to http:/www.clevelandart.org/art/collections; and another, also Dutch, is in the collection of the Rijksmuseum, The Netherlands, accession number BK-NM-11582; go to