By: Sheila Gibson Stoodley
Some objects that modern collectors regard as works of art were not seen that way by the people who originally made and bought them; so it is with snuff bottles. Tobacco reached China in the 16th century, but the use of snuff, its powdered form, became fashionable in the Qing dynasty (1644–1911). Its wealthy inhalers carried their personal rations in bottles rather than the boxes their European counterparts favored. The small, sealable vessels stopped snuff from caking in the humid Chinese climate and were easier to tuck into the folds of pocketless Chinese garments.
“Snuff bottles were never considered high art, except for the enameled bottles made for the emperor,” says San Franciscan Vincent Fausone, president of the International Chinese Snuff Bottle Society, a collectors’ group based in Baltimore. “In today’s parlance, they were like Fabergé eggs or Rolex watches. They were prestige objects for the owner to take pride in and display.” The lifespan of the snuff bottle largely follows that of the Qing dynasty, with the arrival of cigarettes dealing the final blow in the 1920s.
Snuff bottles flourished for only three centuries—an eyeblink when measured against the tenures of other Chinese art forms—and they were fashioned from virtually every precious substance imaginable. Collector John Ford identifies five main categories: porcelain, hardstone, glass, metal and organic materials. The subcategories are too numerous to list, but they include jade, ivory and amber. Inside-painted bottles deserve mention as well. In the early 19th century Chinese artists started pushing specialized brushes and pens through the necks of bottles to render calligraphy, portraits and landscapes on the interiors.
Collectors take pleasure in the array of choices. Christie’s, one of the auction houses offering snuff bottles, selects its lots to provide a variety of materials, shapes and techniques. “Anything that makes a bottle more unique and interesting will add value,” says Michael Bass, a specialist in Chinese works of art at Christie’s. Interesting without fail are bottles with solid imperial provenances. Christie’s set the current auction record for a snuff bottle in New York in March 2008 when an enamel-on-copper example created in the palace workshops in the early to mid-18th century fetched $825,000, well above its $250,000–300,000 estimate.
The record-setting bottle is anomalous for another reason: It features a so-called “European” subject. The largest panels on each side show a different Western woman, either of whom could have modeled for Meissen. Yet over time, Western collectors have gravitated toward snuff bottles that they must decipher to appreciate. Efforts at scholarship, encouraged by dealers and collectors alike, have revealed the meanings behind the symbols and messages on bottles created for the Chinese educated classes. “A lot of effort has been made to make these works of art accessible, to make the literary allusions available to people,” says Dessa Goddard, vice president at Bonhams & Butterfields and director of its Asian art department, which includes snuff bottles in several of its auctions.
Fausone’s favorite from his 600-strong collection contains references that require interpretation. The bottom features a carving of two peaches and a bat, which means, “May you be blessed with long life.” The bat is a pun—the words for “bat” and “blessing” sound almost alike in classical Chinese. “The Chinese literati taste has taken over what you want in a collection,” says Fausone. “There’s greater knowledge of Chinese aesthetics.”