THE RIGHT STUFF: SPECIALIZED FIELD TURNS UP BOTTLES WITH HISTORY
Assortment of Chinese snuff bottles from $977 to $7,475. Photo courtesy of Sotheby's
I wonder if snuffing and chewing tobacco became popular in the 18th century because it was pretty hard to find a light.
Whatever the reason was, most men and even some ladies kept a stash of snuff within arms reach. Snuff is basically powdered tobacco stored in bottles, crocks, and boxes.
Like pocket watches, snuff containers were status symbols, and every gentleman wanted the best he could afford. Some had a box or bottle for everyday of the week. No real blue blood would show up without one.
Some of the earliest snuff bottles in this country were free-blown and had three to eight sides with beveled corners. In 1760, Pierre Lorillard manufactured the first snuff in America. Nine years later a notice in the Pennsylvania Chronicle and Universal Advertiser listed snuff bottles for sale.
The Chinese started snuffing in the 17th century after being introduced to the powder by European Jesuits. Chinese snuff bottles show exquisite taste and workmanship. They seldom measure over 2½ inches and are made of amber, ivory, glass, porcelain, jade and cinnabar. Tiny spoons were often attached to the stoppers.
These diminutive works of art have been collected for years. It’s a highly specialized field driven by knowledgeable buyers.
“You can purchase a quality Chinese snuff bottle starting at $1,000,” says James Godfrey, senior vice president at Sotheby’s, New York.
“From there you can spend well over $100,000 if you wanted to. Snuff bottles are one area in Chinese antiques that are relatively affordable. They don’t have the rarity of porcelain or bronzes.”
On March 23 and 24, 1998, Sotheby’s featured a selection of snuff bottles in their Chinese works of art auction. An 18th century pear shape, two-color, overlay-glass snuff bottle with a chip to the inner-foot rim realized $1,265.
A red glass, moon-shaped snuff bottle with flattened narrow sides from the Qianlong dynasty (1736-1795) estimated to sell for $1,000-$1,500, sold for $977.
Other lots included an unusual green-glass rectangular shaped bottle resting on an oval foot rim. Also from the same period, the bottle brought $1,150.
The top lot in the snuff bottle category was a rare pair of porcelain bottles, Qianlong period. The miniature moon-flask shapes, decorated in “famille-rose” enamels with traditional landscapes on both sides, sold for $107,000.
What factors are at play in valuing snuff bottles? “It’s a field that involves extensive study,” says Godfrey. “But quality, rarity, uniqueness, condition, materials and decoration are the critical factors. The auction previews are a great way to learn. You can see and handle the items yourself.”
Reproductions are plentiful in this arena, so it’s important to seek knowledgeable advice if you’re uncertain.
For more information, contact The International Chinese Snuff Bottle Society, 2601 North Charles St., Baltimore, Md. 21218-4514.
I get questions from readers about antique reference books. Which to buy? How much to spend?
I think you might be surprised to see how many reference books and price guides your local library has available on the shelves. It’s a great way to go, and you can’t beat the price.
Many smaller libraries will locate and get books for you that are available at other branches. I do much of my own research at the library. It’s a relaxing way to spend an evening too. In this age of staring at computer screens all day, I welcome the chance to wade through the bookshelves and lay my hands on a something tangible.
There are a couple of antique resources I generally consult. One is Maloney’s Antiques & Collectibles Resource Directory, 4th edition. It’s like the Yellow Pages and full of information on everything from advertising collectibles to writing instruments. The book lists dealers, appraisers, experts, collectors, museums, periodicals, clubs and associations. It’s published by Antique Trader Books.
I also use Schroeder’s Antiques Price Guide (1998). I like the format of this book. Everything is in alphabetical order, with large print, pictures, and listings and prices for over 50,000 antiques and collectibles. The text is published by Collector Books.
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