CHINA'S ANCIENT BAN ON SMOKING SPURS A LEGACY OF SNUFF BOTTLES
Suzhou School; Chinese black carved jade; shows two sages beneath prunus, boat and hut on reverse; coral stopper; 3 1/8 inches high; $2,350. Photo courtesy of I.M. Chait Gallery
They are storytellers of China’s long history. Picturing everything from plum branches, lotus plants and mountain scenes, to lions and wishes for prosperity, snuff bottles are miniature masterpieces often measuring no more than 2 1/2 inches high.
The oldest tell of China during the Ching Dynasty in 1644. They reveal the applied arts at their best during the era. No equivalent in China’s history. They serve as important links to the ancient arts, crafts, poetry, and day-to-day lives of the Chinese. A legacy in a bottle.
They tell of the powdered tobacco mixed with herbs and essential oils stored inside.
Smoking tobacco was forbidden in ancient China. But snuff was acceptable because of its supposed medicinal qualities used to treat headaches, colds and stomach problems.
Holding these antiquities in your hand conjures up images of men who stored them in the sleeve of their robes and carefully removed them for a pinch of snuff. Each bottle tells a different story. Each opens a door to the past.
Taking snuff became a popular trend among the elite and spread to the masses. It was a common courtesy in the 18th century to offer friends a pinch upon meeting them. The Chinese dispensed snuff in bottles rather than in boxes as was the European custom. The most unusual bottles were prized status symbols.
The detail in snuff bottles mirrors detail seen in larger objects like porcelain. But, the best snuff bottles reveal little or no loss of detail which demonstrates the skill of the Chinese artisans who made them.
Materials used ranged from bronze, jade, glass and gemstone to tortoise shell, amber, coral and sea shells. Carved jade is probably the most highly valued material to this day in bottles.
Semi-precious stones along with inside-painted snuff bottles also command great collector interest. Imagine the skill and patience needed to reach the tip of a brush inside a bottle through a hole in its narrow neck and then paint a miniature landscape?
Snuff bottles may also include painting, calligraphy, inlay, metal smithing and leather work. The variety is endless, only limited by the imagination of the hand that created it.
Some collectors only want Ching Dynasty snuff bottles. Others welcome 20th century pieces.
Beginning collectors should become familiar with the look and feel of the real thing. Jade-color stones are sometimes mistaken for jade. Newer snuff bottles are lighter in weight and the workmanship often lacks detail and good quality.
Some of the inside-painted bottles are actually new, done with decals. Bottles can also be falsely aged.
Collectors focus on themes, subjects, or artists. Others simply appreciate the design and affordability of many bottles. Since snuff bottles are small, they serve as an ideal antique or collectible in today’s smaller homes.
On Dec. 7, I.M. Chait Gallery and Auctioneers in Beverly Hills, Calif., featured a selection of snuff bottles in its International Fine Arts Auction. Here are some current values.
Chinese ruby glass; transparent; pear shape; crackled quartz or glass stopper; 2 3/4 inches high; $528.
Chinese red (cinnabar) lacquer; shows sage and attendants on both sides; elaborate detailing; 19th century; lapis or sodalite stopper; 2 7/8 inches high; $528.
Chinese yellow jade; Ming style; shows tiger amidst clouds and other mountain scenes; jade stopper; 2 3/4 inches high; $587.
Jadeite; highly translucent; bright apple-green spots and striations; agate stopper; circa 1900; 3 3/8 inches high; $616.
Chinese white jade; somewhat square form; late-19th century; coral-glass stopper; repaired; 3 1/4 inches high; $998.
Suzhou School; Chinese black carved jade; shows two sages beneath prunus, boat and hut on reverse; coral stopper; 3 1/8 inches high; $2,350.
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