Behind The Gallery: Premsela & Hamburger about Kuen's Silver Snuff Box

Olivier von Elt,  Gallerease
Olivier von Elt
2 Articles
To many people, the name Premsela & Hamburger does not need any further explanation- and not without reason. For almost two centuries, the company Premsela & Hamburger has been maintaining an excellent reputation as dealer of unique silver and gold objects and jewellery. Various museums in the world have been enriched with items acquired from Premsela & Hamburger...
 
The company of Premsela & Hamburger was founded in Amsterdam on the 1st of January 1823, during the reign of king William I of the Netherlands. The founding fathers were Jacob Meijer Premsela (1796-1849), whose surname was derived from the Polish town of Przemyƛl (Premissel in German), and his relative Jacob Meijer Hamburger.
 
When Jacob Premsela married in 1824, he was called “koralenslijper” (coral polisher). Not only did he polish precious stones and corals in the company’s “edelgesteentenslijperij”, but he and his business partner also traded in gold and silver objects and precious stones. Premsela & Hamburger has always been situated in Amsterdam (one might say, the company is Amsterdam); first in the Sint-Antoniesbreestraat and from 1869 on in the Nieuwe Hoogstraat, in those days well-known for the many antique dealers. In 1921, the company moved to the Kloveniersburgwal.
 
Soon, in the East, dark clouds were to gather at the horizon: during the Second World War, when mankind really hit moral rock bottom on an unprecedented scale and in a still incomprehensible manner, the stock of the firm was plundered by the Nazis. In 1943, Meijer Jacob Premsela (1892-1943), together with his wife, mother-in-law and one of his daughters, was murdered in Auschwitz. 
 
After the war, his daughter Jenny Premsela continued Premsela & Hamburger and in 1952, the company moved to the Rokin.
 
In 1973, Premsela & Hamburger, already 150 years old, was styled “hofleverancier” - purveyor to the court - by Queen Juliana, but the company was already known in 1892 as “hoflapidaires” - purveyors of precious stones to the court.
 
Premsela & Hamburger still flourishes, runned by Jenny Gans-Premsela and her son Wiet Gans - the fifth and sixth generation in this firm. The company can be visited on the Rokin 98 in Amsterdam.
 
One intriguing object in the collection of Premsela & Hamburger is a silver snuff box (circa 8,5 by 6,5 by 2,5 cm) with a lid of mother of pearl. The snuff box was made in 1756 in Amsterdam by the silversmith Joachim Kuen:
 
Snuff box by Joachim Kuen
 
 
An antique silver snuff box depicting Daniel in the lions' den. Made in 1756 by Joachim Kuen, Amsterdam. Mother of Pearl. 
 
 
Snuff boxes
Snuff is ground or pulverised tobacco, which has to be insufflated - snuffed - into the nasal cavity, invoking a hit of nicotine and often, when being blended, a flavoured scent.
 
Traditionally, snuff is gracefully pinched between thumb and index finger and inhaled lightly. For many centuries, the Dutch have been well-known (and were sometimes of ill repute) for their passionate use of tobacco, smoked as well as snuffed. Soon, the tobacco - for the first time imported in France from South America in the 16th century - was cultivated in the Netherlands, in particular in the neighbourhood of Amersfoort, and Dutch tobacco became wildly popular across many countries.
 
In the early 17th century, “snuif” (as the Dutch called snuff), produced in snuff mills, already had become an expensive luxury commodity and many people believed snuff had valuable antiseptic qualities. By 1650, the use of snuff tobacco had spread throughout Europe, as well as Japan, China and Africa.
 
Despite some resistance of fierce objectors - tsar Michael of Russia (1596-1645) not only prohibited the sale of tobacco in 1643, but even decreed the removal of the nose of those who used snuff as punishment and the death penalty for the more persistent addicts - snuff became very fashionable.
 
In the 18th century, snuff was the preferred tobacco product amongst the elite and the use of it was practically the paragon of distinguished elegance. Queen Charlotte (1744-1818), the wife of king George III, even had an entire room at Windsor Castle devoted to her snuff stock and was referred to as “Snuffy Charlotte”. 
 
 
 
Snuffy Charlotte taking a snuff 1827 Tobaccoplant
 
From left to right: 'Snuffy Charlotte'; The interesting contrast between an elderly woman and a pretty young girl taking snuff, 1827; A tobaccoplant, 1776
 
Not surprisingly, the manufacture of snuff accessories became a lucrative industry for many craftsmen. As prolonged exposure to air caused snuff to dry out and to lose its quality and perfume, pocket snuff boxes (“snuifdoos” in Dutch, “tabatière” in French) were designed: small containers with strong hinges, which could be carried in a pocket.
 
By all means, these snuff boxes were preferably of the utmost quality and splendour, made of silver or gold with highly ornate designs. Often, the silver or gold was combined with a variety of materials, for example exotic shells (in particular, the tiger cowrie or Cypraea tigris was very popular), horn, ivory, tortoise shell, enamel or (precious) stones like lapis lazuli or porphyry.
 
Very famous is the German goldsmith Johann Christian Neuber (1736-1808), whose superb snuff boxes were beautifully embellished with the most spectacular kaleidoscopes of various inlaid gemstones and were therefore known as “Steinkabinetten” (stone cabinets). Sometimes, the lid was adorned with a portrait miniature or a micromosaic panel, or the snuff box was more subtly made of various colours of gold.
 
 
A Steinkabinettabatière
 
A Steinkabinettabatière, or stone cabinet snuffbox, from around 1765-70
 
 
The use of mother-of-pearl (also known as nacre) for the lid, with its beautiful natural iridescent state, was very en vogue in the 18th century.
 
Mother-of-pearl could be used in snuff boxes in three different ways: it could be set under gold or silver cage work, used as an inlay or could be inserted, where the lid is solely made out of a plaque of (usually carved) mother-of-pearl. Alas, because of the vulnerability of the material, many of mother-of-pearl lids haven’t survived the past centuries, but the snuff box offered by Premsela & Hamburger is still in a mint condition.
 
Daniel in the lion’s den
A remarkable scene is finely carved out of the mother of pearl lid: a praying man, emerging from a ditch in a landscape, surrounded by three ferocious lions, the beaks wide open. It depicts of course the well-known biblical story of Daniel in the lions’ den.
 
This narrative is anchored in chapter 6 of Book of Daniel, a biblical apocalypse, originally (as most scholars agree upon) a collection of folktales amongst the Babylonian diaspora between the 5th and 2nd centuries BC (the Persian and Hellenistic era), when Jewish communities lived in Babylon and Mesopotamia. 
 
According to the story, the legendary figure of Daniel was a noble Jewish youth from Jerusalem, raised to high office by Darius the Mede, the (fictional) king of Babylon. Trickery, mudslinging and foul play are, alas, of all times, certainly in politics: jealous rivals deceived king Darius, tricking him into issuing a decree that during thirty days, no prayers should be addressed to any god or man but king Darius himself. Anyone who was found violating this law would be punished by death and be thrown to the lions. Daniel however continued to pray to his God - the God of Israel - and the king, although deeply distressed, had Daniel condemned to death, for it was legally impossible, even for the king, to alter the edicts of the Medes and Persians. 
 
 
Daniel in the Lions'Den by Rubens
 
Daniel in the Lions' Den, by Peter Paul Rubens - National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, USA
 
Although king Darius was sincerely hoping for Daniel’s escape and deliverance, he had no choice than having Daniel thrown into the den with lions. At daybreak the next morning, king Darius hurried back to the pit and cried out anxiously, asking if God had saved his friend. It was Daniel who answered from the pit: his God had sent an angel to close the jaws of the lions, because Daniel was “found blameless before him”. The king, relieved as well as furious, had all conspirators (and, rather harsh and cruel, also their wives and children) thrown in the lions’ den in Daniel’s place and commanded to all the people in the world to “tremble and fear before the God of Daniel”. 
 
One might wonder who might have commissioned or bought this snuff box; carved mother-of-pearl lids could depict various scenes, for example an allegory on a season, hunting scenes, a coat of arms or one’s initials and even more ‘naughty’ sceneries - after all, it was often a gentleman’s accessory used for snuff tobacco and therefore perfect to show around to one’s friends. Perhaps, this snuff box was made for a clergyman, as the story of Daniel clearly emphasises the greatness of the God of the Jews (and therefore the Christians). However, most people in the Netherlands - the protestants especially - were quite well-read in Scripture, so it could have been acquired by any gentleman. 
 
Joachim Kuen
Since 1755, Joachim (also known as Joachimus) Kuen, was active as a silver smith in Amsterdam (with his master’s mark, he signed “KUEN”). This box, according to the date mark made in 1756, is therefore one of his very first objects. In that same year, November 1756, Joachim Kuen married to Catharina Dood, who died - what’s in a name, one would almost say (“Dood” means “death” in Dutch) - a few years later, in 1763, leaving her husband with two small children.
 
In 1765, Joachim remarried to Maria Krook, the widow of a VOC mariner. On the 20th of December 1783, Joachim Kuen was buried in the Noorderkerk in Amsterdam, his second wife followed him in the grave in July 1787. 
 
Noorderkerk Amsterdam
 
The Noorderkerk in Amsterdam in the 17th century
 
 
Perhaps, it’s not a coincidence that this snuff box depicts a biblical story: Joachim Kuen belonged to a notable family from the province of Groningen (in the upper north eastern part of the Netherlands), many members of which were protestant clergymen (vicars, “predikanten” in Dutch) in the 17th and 18th century.
 
Probably, Joachim Kuen was a son of Bernardus Kuen, vicar in the village of Uitwierda (near Delfzijl, Groningen) from 1707 till 1745; Rudolphus Kuen (1686-1761), vicar in Warfhuizen, Rodenwolde and Wirdum, might have been his uncle. Therefore, it could be assumed that Joachim Kuen was raised rather rigourous with the Scripture; in that view, the decoration of this snuff box is certainly not surprising.
 
By all means, it’s not necessary to be very religious or pious to acquire such a charming objet de vertu as this snuff box. It is an excellent example of this typical 18th century gentleman’s pocket accessory and one of the few (known) objects made by the silversmith Joachim Kuen.
 
The idea of being protected and guarded can be encouraging for anyone. In 1756, the snuff box might have been bought - or even commissioned - by someone named Daniel and most probably, it could still appeal to various Daniels in this world. Of course, one doesn’t need to snuff tobacco anymore to own such a fine relic of 18th century elegance; most things of beauty are completely useless, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde...

Written by Olivier von Elt on 05 Sep 2018, 12:00 Category Art Dealer ProfilesTagged Background information, Collecting Art, Interview