Demand for Chinese snuff bottles is strong among Western and Chinese collectors alike.
Unless you’re born to, or marry, someone who collects them, Chinese snuff bottles enter your life as an unexpected delight. Designed to hold powdered tobacco and rarely measuring more than three inches tall, snuff bottles reflect the universe of Chinese art and culture in miniature, portable form. Think of a material, any material—jade, porcelain, agate, lacquer, glass, turquoise, coral, limestone, horn, jet, cloisonné, rock crystal, metal, stoneware, ivory, quartz, amber, wood, you name it—and some clever, unknown Asian artisan has probably tried to make a snuff bottle out of it, and done a jaw-droppingly fine job, too.
In the past, Westerners often stumbled upon these marvels from China’s Qing dynasty (1644–1912) in tony hotel boutiques and fell in love. Today’s unwitting recruits first see snuff bottles online or in a museum. Their small size makes it easy for curators to plot a comprehensive show in a gallery as long and narrow as a hallway, and that is exactly what those behind the current exhibition “Chinese Snuff Bottles from Southern Californian Collectors” did.
Opened at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) in October and continuing through June 4, “Chinese Snuff Bottles” gathers 200 examples in a space on the second level of the museum’s Hammer Building: 100 on one side and 100 on the other. “The first criterion was quality, the quality of execution and craftsmanship,” explains Stephen Little, LACMA’s Florence and Harry Sloan Curator and Department Head of Chinese Art. “The second was rarity, regardless of material, and the third criterion was variety. We wanted to get as broad a range of materials as possible, but also a range of dates and styles.”
The beautiful little vessels, which the elites of China relied on to signal their status and protect their tobacco stash from the humidity of Beijing, receive the glory that they are due. Highlights of the show include an enamel-on-porcelain bottle shaped like a cicada, an insect that symbolizes rebirth in Chinese culture. It dates from 1796–1850. “It’s an unusual bottle because it’s sculptural,” says Little. “It’s very lifelike, and it’s painted at a time when enamel-on-porcelain was at its height.”
Another snuff bottle standout in the exhibition is a trio of human figures: a Mandarin official, his wife, and his concubine, commissioned sometime between 1790 and 1830 and never parted. The concubine, who wears turquoise-colored clothing, has bound feet; the Mandarin official holds a snuff bottle in his right hand. “They’re a very big deal,” says Clare Chu, a Los Angeles-based dealer who was involved in every stage of the show. “I think there are seven bottles of this type in the world, of which these are three. I think the quality is superb. They would have been made by a very high-level workshop, no doubt.” The exhibition also includes a stunning sapphire-blue glass bottle with white overlay, made circa 1750 to 1850, that depicts a scene from the life of the Tang dynasty poet Meng Haoran, as well as a bottle carved from limestone, with a baby nautilus shell visible at its foot.
The LACMA show coincided with the annual convention of the International Chinese Snuff Bottle Society (ICSBS), held last November in L.A. The ICSBS, which turns 50 next year, is a strong and effective collectors’ organization, not least because it plans its conventions in cities whose museums have snuff bottle collections that it hopes to coax out of storage. “One of our jobs is to show museums they have wonderful bottles, and [convince them to] get them out and keep them out,” says Berthe Ford, president of the ICSBS.
The layout of the LACMA show does not reflect how Westerners collect snuff bottles, however. The bottles appear in substance-based groups to make for a powerful, cohesive display, but Western collectors don’t typically build their collections around individual materials. “Most people collect across the board,” says Ford. “It’s nice to have one of every type, but it’s not necessary. It’s a personal choice.”
Asian collectors, and particularly mainland Chinese collectors, tend to follow different strategies. They are more likely to target bottles made of specific materials: jade, and enamels on glass and metal, to name the most prominent. “I don’t think Asian collectors think of it in the same way,” says Chu. “Many more mainland Chinese come from collecting jade or porcelain, or have snuff bottles as part of a bigger collection. That’s the difference between the East and the West. A lot of Western collectors only collect snuff bottles. They might occasionally have collections of other things, but not necessarily Asian antiques.”
The size of the bottles also appeals to the Chinese for much the same reason that they favor colored diamonds. “They’re mobile, like jewelry,” says Michael C. Hughes, a dealer based in Manhattan. “If another revolution happened, you can get them out easily in a suitcase. You can’t do that with 20 pieces of furniture.”
Mainland Chinese collectors appeared in the snuff bottle world a bit later in the 21st century than they did in other realms of Asian antiques at auction, but they are unquestionably a force. “The mainland Chinese came in with kind of a big bang and bought very strongly at a top level, pricing the Westerners out,” says Margaret Gristina, head of sale in the Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art department at Christie’s New York. “It took a while to feel that they [Westerners] can compete in the market again.”
While the mainland Chinese are present and bidding in snuff bottle auction sale rooms, they do not dominate to the extent that they do in other markets for Asian art and antiques. “Sales which are general works of art, the rest of Chinese art, I see probably 80 percent from mainland China or greater China. With snuff bottles, it’s much less,” says Bruce MacLaren, a Chinese art specialist with Bonhams New York. “There are still a lot of major European collectors, grabbing a bigger market impact. With snuff bottles, it’s probably more like 60 or 65 percent [mainland Chinese]. Still, it’s a lot more than it was 20 years ago.”
Bonhams sold the most valuable snuff bottle at auction in November 2011 in Hong Kong for HK $25.3 million ($3.2 million). Though it went to an Asian collector it embodies much of what makes a snuff bottle desirable to any collector, anywhere in the world. The enamel-on-glass example dates to 1736–60 and has a Qianlong Imperial mark. It also represents a sort of Chinese version of chinoiserie, graced with fanciful images of pretty European women that look a bit off to Western eyes.
“As a bottle, it is the best. Everything is right about it,” Chu says. “It reflects the taste of the Qianlong court and reflects the cross-cultural interest they had at the time. It’s a beautiful thing in every respect, and it has everything going for it.”
During Asia Week in New York this month, both Christie’s and Bonhams will have dedicated auctions of snuff bottles. Bonhams’ Fine Chinese Snuff Bottles sale, scheduled for March 13, includes an 1897 inside-painted bottle by Ding Erzhong, estimated at $25,000–35,000. Inside-painted bottles are an intriguing sub-category within the snuff bottle world. The artists use special tools and techniques to render images on the interiors of the vessels. “Erzhong was a very good painter, appreciated for his skills,” says MacLaren. “If you look at the brush they use to do this, it’s almost like a fish hook. And you have to do it in reverse, painting the last layer first and building it out.”
The Bonhams sale also includes a Suzhou jade snuff bottle ($10,000–15,000) and a yellow and russet jade snuff bottle for the same estimate. Both reflect the value that mainland Chinese customers place on jades of all colors, not just green. Twenty years ago, when Western tastes prevailed, auction estimates for bottles such as these might have been closer to $2,000–3,000. “Jades are always collected because they are semi-precious stones, but the Chinese buyer’s appreciation for jade has brought the prices up quite a bit,” says MacLaren.
Christie’s will host the fourth sale from the Ruth and Carl Barron collection on March 15. The 180 lots include a few inside-painted bottles by the celebrated Beijing School artist Ma Shaoxuan, including one from circa 1900 estimated at $10,000–15,000. Also featured is a substantial, finely carved yellow and russet jade bottle from the Master of the Rocks school, dating to 1730–1830, for the same estimate.
Glass, a favorite of the Barrons, appears at the Christie’s auction in the form of an enameled green-overlay white glass Imperial Qianlong snuff bottle from the Yangzhou school. Estimated at $6,000–8,000, it’s a charming and exceptionally rare piece that almost looks like a work of porcelain. The Barrons’ collection also extends to a piece created between 1860 and 1920 by the Yaji Master of Japan. The slightly oversize (three and three-eighths-inch tall) bottle combines wood and mother-of-pearl insets and carries the same estimate. Also of note is an agate bottle carved between 1760 and 1840 with the image of a horse tied to a hitching post. It represented potential waiting to be unleashed, making the bottle an excellent gift for someone who was prepping for, or soon to face, the legendary civil service exams. It is estimated at $5,000–7,000.
The snuff bottle market has quieted since the November 2011 record, but no one who knows them well doubts that they will keep their power to enchant new collectors. “People do love snuff bottles,” says Little. “They’re one type of Chinese art everyone loves. There’s such a variety of them, and they’re wonderful windows into Chinese culture.”
By Sheila Gibson Stoodley