A Guest Blogs: How to Collect Chinese Snuff Bottles

In Chinese art on July 12, 2010 at 3:09 pm

Today my guest blogger is Isadore M. Chait, President of I.M. Chait Gallery/Auctioneers.  Izzy, as he is known to just about everyone, is an expert of Asian art.  Recently, he sent me a copy of a piece he had written on Chinese snuff bottles.

I think you’ll be interested in finding out about this highly collectible category.  The neat thing is that they don’t take up much room, are beautiful and still very moderately valued.

The Joy of Chinese Snuff Bottles.
What Are They? Why Collect Them?
Carved Jade Snuff Bottle
By Isadore M. Chait, President

In the very Early 18th Century (although some people might insist it was the late 17th Century), snuff, as a recreational habit, was introduced by Europeans to the Court of China.  While we all may have our opinions relative to the evils of tobacco, no one can ignore the fact that European snuff boxes, made for the wealthy class, are some of the most beautiful miniature objects created.  Executed in gold, enamels, often jeweled and diamond encrusted; depending on the wealth of the royal using it, snuff boxes are precious jewels in their own right.

Double Snuff BottleThe Chinese took to snuff as a Peking duck takes to the oven (just kidding).  You might say that at the time, snorting little dabs of tobacco and sneezing was ever increasingly popular among the wealthy-class in China.  Now we all know that the Chinese would be very unhappy to be outdone by the Europeans.  Therefore, members of the royal court and other wealthy individuals, having already at their disposal what might be referred to as Palace Workshops, started the creation of their own version of containers for snuff.

Chinese snuff bottles were actually more efficient than European snuff bottles.
  • They were small, about 3″ tall, or less.
  • They were what you might call today ergonomically shaped.
  • The tops were secured by cork so that they didn’t accidentally open while being carried in a sleeve and no moisture could get in.
  • They also had attached to the top and cork an ivory spoon, with which to reach in and extract the ground tobacco.
  • Chinese snuff bottles were executed in porcelain, enamels on metal, lacquer, glass and a myriad of organic and inorganic materials including, of course, jade.
Body Decorations

When formed of metal or ceramic, the bottles could be created hollow in order to Intricately carved snuff boxhold
the tobacco.  When carved out of stones such as agate or jade, the bottles
needed to be hollowed out on the interior.  This was a technique already developed for larger jade and agate pieces but the technology for doing this in miniature, as most snuff bottles rarely exceed 3”, was a proficiency quickly developed in the workshops.
Some bottles created in translucent agates were paper thin. One test of the carver’s skill, in creating these bottles, was to see if he could create snuff bottles so thin that, when immersed in water, they would actually float.  Another test was to see how small the opening could be for the spoon.

The decorations on these bottles varied tremendously, with porcelain being decorated under and over the glaze, many times with exquisite enamel detailing.  Enamel detailing was used on metal bottles, over copper or sometimes even over gold, again with exquisite detailing.  The same exquisite enameling could also be applied to glass or the glass could be carved using various colorations, in the styles that agate and jade might have been fashioned.

Sometimes these bottles bore marks attributing them to certain Dynastic Periods, specific carvers or specific workshops.  Now-a-days, when these bottles from the 18th Century appear and the bottles themselves are what we might call palace quality, they easily bring tens of thousands and sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars per bottle.
Snuff Bottle Tops

What about the tops of these snuff bottles?  Many times, the top is made of the same material as the bottle itself but the tops can be almost any material:  glass, agate, jade, metal, shell, ivory, etc.  Often the tops are chosen to compliment rather than match exactly the snuff bottle or its decoration and sometimes the tops are so exquisite that they themselves have become scarce commodities.  For example, not long ago, we sold an intricately carved white jade snuff bottle top for nearly $1,000 and many years ago I repatriated, so to speak, an emerald  green jadeite snuff bottle top and made it into a man’s ring, which today, would probably sell for at least  $50,000.

Snuff Bottles: Miniaturized Art Form

So what happened after the 18th Century?  By the time we get into the 19th Century, snuff is out of or going out of fashion and bottles are being collected as objects rather than functional containers.  Of course production never ceases and only increases as does the demand.  By the time of the later 19th Century, workshops have opened who can paint fantastic scenes on the interiors of clear glass snuff bottles.  Also around this time the West has discovered snuff bottles as an art object and well into modern times, more and more bottles are being created and more and more bottles are being collected.
As with all miniaturized art forms, value and the ability to be stored easily Museum of American History Snuff Bottle Collection
play an important part in the collecting of snuff bottles.  Another facet of collecting snuff bottles concerns itself with the fascination of Western collectors with the Chinese ability to emphasize detail of design so strongly that it can captivate the eye of the beholder.  I must also point out that in the Early 20th Century, workshops in Japan, also well know for their ability to exquisitely detail, are producing snuff bottles in carved and lacquered ivories, cloisonné and other mediums for collectors in Asia and abroad.

Needles to say, there are a lot of snuff bottles available to be purchased.  Many can be bought for under $100.  Many can be bought for under $1,000.  Good antique bottles can be bought for under $10,000 and it seems there is no limit to the prices being paid for the best bottles in the world.  It won’t be long before one sells for over a million dollars.

Fine collections of Snuff Bottles are featured in I.M. Chait’s Asian and International Fine Arts Auctions. The next Asian and International Fine Arts Auction is August 29.

Isadore M. Chait is an expert in Asian Arts. Two years after he started selling Chinese antique from his living room in 1967, he opened his first gallery of Asian Art. Today, I.M. Chait of Beverly Hills is a leader in Chinese arts. He has appeared on Financial News network and writes regularly on collecting.

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