The box is of particular interest for its engraver. As well as the maker’s mark for the silversmith Joannes van Erven, a hallmark for 1732-49 and a later ownership initial JBVB, the two finely worked vignettes are both signed by Norbert Heylbrouck Snr (d.1762).
The cover, depicting Apollo tending the sheep and cows of Admetus, carries the signature N Heylbrouck Fecit G[hent] while the opposing scene of the opening of Pandora’s box has the initials NHFG.
Heylbrouck’s story is as captivating as his engraving. Born into a Dutch family of painters and engravers in 1726, he was arrested and charged with counterfeiting coins. The punishment was death but, thanks to the intervention of his wife and the clemency of Archduchess Maria- Elizabeth of Austria (1680-1741) he was granted a reprieve.
It has been suggested that the subjects chosen for this box would have carried particular resonance for Heylbrouck Snr as they touch on both his descent into crime and his pardoning.
Both scenes are taken directly from engravings produced by Sébastien Leclerc (1637-1714) for Métamorphoses d’Ovide published in Paris 1676 by Isaac de Bensérade.
However, in the scene of Apollo – accepting the punishment handed out to him by Zeus for disobedience – Heylbrouck has added the figure of a reclining lady that could represent the Archduchess Maria-Elizabeth.
The auction house concluded: “It should come as no surprise if Heylbrouck dedicated or even donated this snuff box to her in gratitude before her death in 1741.”
In a number of Dutch and Belgian private collections before it was acquired by the vendor in 2006, it was offered at the sale on September 1 with a guide of €4600-9200 but sold at €15,000 (£13,600) plus 35% buyer’s premium.
Heylbrouck’s life after his pardoning was not blemish-free. In 1755, when working in Bruges (and signing himself Graveur de sa Majesté de la Monnaye à Bruges) he was again prosecuted for forgery and in 1759 was exiled to Brussels, where he died three years later.