Sea monster

Hunting a sea monster

The museum regularly receives catalogues from auction houses. Usually these are browsed routinely during coffee breaks, circulated among fellow curators or placed in the bookcase along with the other reference literature. Sorted. But very occasionally a catalogue generates excitement and an attempt to acquire a special piece. This is was what happened on Wednesday, 24 September 2008, when I saw the sales catalogue ‘The European Interior’ from AAG auctioneers in Amsterdam. Of the few collections of Dutch tiles on offer, one stood out in particular: lot 288, a sea monster.

Tile with a polychrome decoration of a sea monster, 1600-1630, Rotterdam, earthenware, on loan from the Ottema-Kingma Stichting.
Tile with a polychrome decoration of a sea monster, 1600-1630, Rotterdam, earthenware, on loan from the Ottema-Kingma Stichting.

Tile with a polychrome decoration of a sea monster, 1600-1630, Rotterdam, earthenware, on loan from the Ottema-Kingma Stichting.
Click on the image for an enlargement.

What a magnificent specimen! A hideous, menacing sea monster emerges from the blue-green water. Its head and neck are covered with scales and its mouth is full of sharp teeth. Venom-green fumes exude from two bulges on its head and from its mouth. The painting is executed in several colours on a surface of only 13 by 13 centimetres, the standard size of Dutch wall tiles. The outlines of the sea monster are indicated in purple, and coloured with blue and orange-brown. The sea and rising fumes are painted in purple, blue and green.

Various types of sea creatures, including sea snakes or monsters, were frequently painted on tiles in the seventeenth century. The coloured specimens date from the first half of the seventeenth century and are traditionally attributed to Rotterdam. This tile can also be placed in that category: made in Rotterdam between approximately 1615 and 1630. The museum already had early examples in its extensive tile collection, so why acquire another one? Of the seven tiles in the collection, only two are presentable, the others are incomplete or too damaged. The museum’s own collection was therefore limited and augmenting it was desirable, but that alone was not a good argument for purchasing this piece.

A closer look at the early polychrome sea creatures from Rotterdam reveals differences in quality. Some were painted downright clumsily; most of them are of reasonable to good quality. And some are of an exceptional standard, both in the execution of the painting and in the rarity of the decoration. In total only three of these outstanding tiles are known, including this sea monster. The other two show an elephant in the water and a scaly seal-like creature. They are from the hand of the same anonymous tile painter and are among the very best made in the Netherlands in 400 years. This quality was not yet represented in a Dutch museum, hence the importance of acquiring the piece.

A lot of water flowed through the Dokkumer Ee, before the tile was purchased. I presented it to my fellow curators and the director, and if everyone was enthusiastic, I’d attend the viewing day to inspect the tile to ascertain its condition. Fortunately it was in good condition, with only some minor damage to the edges, but that’s normal with old wall tiles. The museum doesn’t have its own acquisition budget so we contacted the Ottema-Kingma Foundation (OKS), the most important private fund for museum purchases in Friesland. We sounded them out: ‘Is this maybe something for you?’ In the meantime we wrote an acquisition proposal, registered at the auction house for telephone bidding and asked other museums if they wanted to bid as well. The OKS approved the acquisition proposal the following weekend, after which we agreed on a maximum bid that was considerably higher than the auction house’s target price, because we expected a lot of competition.

And then Monday came around. The auction was in the evening, and the day crawled by. The moment approached and tensions rose. Then the phone rang. It was the auction house. They still had some lots to sell before the sea monster. Waiting… The adrenaline coursed through my veins. When its turn came, there were plenty of bids for lot number 288. The amounts kept increasing until the battle became a duel between a bidder in the hall and the museum. We were nearing our agreed maximum and the tension was tangible. We placed our last, and maximum bid. Silence on the telephone… The seconds crawled past. And then the famous words ‘going once, going twice...’, and BANG!, the blow as the hammer fell. The tile was ours. We’d captured the sea monster!

The creator of the monster

We cannot say for certain who painted this special tile, but presumably it was the Rotterdam entrepreneur Claes Jansz Wijtmans. He owned a glass factory in addition to the tile factory on the Korte Wijnstraat in Rotterdam. Moreover, he was a silver and glass engraver. Tiles and some tile tableaus that are attributed to him match the sea monster in quality, colour and painting style. 

Jaap Jongstra, independent art historian and ceramics expert

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