Albertus Seba's Cabinet of Natural History
A double-page hand coloured engraved plate showing an alligator from Albertus Seba’s great ‘Cabinet of Natural History’, a copy of which sold at €420,000 (£376,740) in a recent Christie's Paris.

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Albertus Seba (1665-1736), an Amsterdam apothecary, made a fortune in the service of the VOC (the Dutch East India Company) and used that and his far-flung trading network to assemble not one, but two great cabinets of natural history specimens.

The first he sold to Peter the Great of Russia in 1717, and together with the collections of one of Seba’s countrymen, anatomist Frederick Ruysch, it formed the base for the Kunstkammer in St Petersburg, Russia's first museum.

Albertus Seba's Cabinet of Natural History

Birds and snakes feature together in a double-page illustration from Albertus Seba's ‘Locupletissimi rerum naturalium thesauri’, a copy of which sold recently at Christie's Paris.

Seba, however, just carried on collecting and a second ‘cabinet’ grew to even greater size. His private museum became a major attraction in the city for both fellow naturalists such as Carl Linnaeus and Maria Sibylla Merian, and for visiting dignitaries and the simply curious.

This was the collection that is spectacularly recorded in a great work of 1734-65 called Locupletissimi rerum naturalium thesauri.

Seba, who had many distinguished collaborators but wrote most of the text himself, died in 1736, with only two volumes completed. To finance the much later production of the two other volumes that make up the complete work, the collection itself had to be sold.

Albertus Seba's Cabinet of Natural History

Shells are ingeniously arranged in this double-page spread from Albertus Seba's ‘Locupletissimi rerum naturalium thesauri’, most notably to form a pair of birds in the upper section.

The beautifully bound complete set offered in Paris on November 28 was one of six lots sent to auction by the Baronne Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza, whose own glamorous portrait preceded the images of the lots in the catalogue.

The work contains 449 superb hand coloured engraved plates, of which 175, like those reproduced here, are double-page. They are the real glory of this work but, as a fourth illustration below shows, this set also boasted exceptional mosaic bindings.

Albertus Seba's Cabinet of Natural History

One of the splendid mosaic bindings that preserve the record-breaking Seba work that sold for €420,000 (£376,740) at Christie's Paris.

The first two volumes were bound by Suenonius Mandelgreen, a Swedish born craftsman who worked in Middleburg, principal city of the province of Zeeland, in the years 1736-58. Those two volumes are signed and dated 1756, but the third and fourth, bound to style a few years later by Nicolas-Denis Derome and an unknown craftsman, are undated.

Sumptuously bound books by Mandelgreen are known to have been used as gifts to prominent or influential figures.