Snuff bottles: A skill not to be sniffed at

Chinese snuff bottle © Christie's
This glass bottle dating from 1898 is expected to sell for up to $60,000.

“The snuff is put into glass bottles [of various colours]… The white [ones] as clear as crystal, the red like fire. What lovely things they are!” raved Wang Shizhen, a high-ranking minister of the Kangxi Emperor in 1702. The Qing dynasty, to which the emperor belonged, had banned the smoking of tobacco in China in the mid-17th century. But snuff – finely ground tobacco leaves that are inhaled through the nose – was permitted due to its supposed health benefits. While the Europeans preferred to keep their snuff in boxes, the Chinese settled on small bottles made from glass, stone, jade, agate, wood, ivory and lacquer. As the fashion for snuff took hold, snuff bottles became status symbols – both in the imperial court and elsewhere. “Snuff bottles are also imitated among the people, but are far inferior in quality and design,” Wang noted.

More than 150 examples that form part of the Ruth and Carl Barron Collection are set to go under the hammer at Christie’s in New York on 13 September. Many of the bottles have estimates in the low thousands of dollars, illustrating why this field is well suited to newer collectors. Particularly rare examples can, however, fetch considerably more – tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars. A glass bottle dating from 1898 that depicts a mountainous river landscape (pictured, above) painstakingly painted from the inside by Ding Erzhong, a renowned master of this technique in the late 1800s and early 1900s, is expected to sell for up to $60,000 in the auction.

Meanwhile, Bonhams in New York is auctioning 126 Chinese snuff bottles belonging to the Dr Sylvan and Faith Golder Collection on 11 September. Among the lots is an imperial snuff bottle with enamelled lotus blossoms and fluttering butterflies, a distinctive deep-pink-hued 18th-century Kuilong bottle, and a white-jade snuff bottle made between 1750 and 1800, with carved reliefs of bronze vessels. All these examples have upper estimates of $25,000, but the auction also includes other, more affordable lots, with estimates as low as $1,000.

Snuff bottles are deeply personal items – “they were made to fit in the hand”, says Christie’s specialist Margi Gristina. Before starting your collection, it’s important to get to grips with as many as possible to understand the subtleties of items and the skill of the craftsmen who created them. “Feel the difference in weight between a well-hollowed bottle and one that has not been so carefully refined. Notice the years of wear that can bring the surface of a piece to a soft and luxurious polish.”

As with any form of collecting, research is important. The collections of some major museums, such as the British Museum in London, contain many examples, while the Journal of the International Chinese Snuff Bottle Society is the leading source for the latest scholarship in the field (see SnuffBottle.org).

Chinese art at Sotheby’s

Chinese snuff bottles will also be among the lots on the block in Sotheby’s Asia Week auctions in New York this month (public viewing is next Friday). Highlights include a Qing Dynasty white-jade butterfly and melon bottle, dated as 18th/19th century, and an inscribed blue-glass bottle, dated to 1774, both with estimates of up to $6,000. These lots feature in the Important Chinese Art sale on Wednesday 13 September, alongside examples of pottery, jades, ceramics, paintings, sculptures and calligraphy. That event will be followed by Fine Classical Paintings & Calligraphy on the Thursday, while the Asian Art sale on Saturday will include an 18th/19th-century white jade snuff bottle estimated at up to $7,000.

Top billing for the week goes to a Chinese Ding carved peony vase from the Northern Song Dynasty (10th – 12th century). “Coveted for its beautiful white hue, Ding wares have been highly sought after since the beginning of their production in the Song Dynasty,” says the auction house. “This particular work is carved with a peony motif signifying royalty and virtue, as well as wealth and honour.” It’s estimated at up to $700,000.

The Important Chinese Art sale also features a “rare sancai-glazed pottery rhyton and an exceptionally rare green-glazed phoenix-head pottery ewer”. Both date from the Tang Dynasty (7th – 10th century), and have been given upper estimates of $70,000 and $120,000 respectively.

Auctions

Going…

A copy of Gone With the Wind presented by author Margaret Mitchell to Vivien Leigh, who played Scarlett O’Hara in the film adaptation, will go on sale at Sotheby’s in London on 26 September. The book, which is not inscribed but includes a loose-leaf poem addressed to Leigh by Mitchell, has an estimate of up to £7,000. It forms part of a large auction of Leigh’s art, books and jewellery. Other lots include a leather-bound copy of the film’s shooting script presented to Leigh by producer David O. Selznick, estimated at up to £15,000.   

Gone…

A 1918 edition of The Tale of Pigling Bland by Beatrix Potter, signed by the author, sold for £1,200 online through Forum Auctions on 24 August. The book was estimated at up to £800.