Chinese Snuff Bottles

Scholarly and rare, popular and accessible, China’s littlest art form is hitting new heights in the market.

The history of snuff bottles is about obsession and competition," says London dealer Robert Hall. "Clients vy-ing to have something more spectacular than the next guy put pressure on makers to improve the quality and develop new production techniques."

When snuff was introduced to China in the 17th century, a need suddenly arose for portable containers to keep the powdered tobacco dry—and a new art form, the snuff bottle, was born. These palm-size vessels, with a tiny spoon attached to the cork stopper for removing the tobacco, were first produced mainly in glass (often enameled) but were later made using materials ranging from copper, lacquer, jade, and every conceivable hard stone to substances such as ivory, amber, bamboo, even gourds.

During Emperor Kangxi’s reign (1661-1722), taking snuff was all the rage at the Chinese court, as it was believed to possess medicinal qualities, including curing asthma and aiding digestion. The bottles, meanwhile, became fashionable accoutrements, and imperial workshops were established where the finest examples—often given as gifts by the emperor—were crafted.

"A great deal of diplomacy was achieved by keeping visiting dignitaries supplied with fancy gifts such as snuff bottles," explains Hugh Moss, a British private dealer based in Hong Kong, who has been buying and selling snuff bottles since the sixties. "They were extremely useful social grease and a polite form of bribery. You could give a guy one and say, ’It’s just a little token of my appreciation.’ But that bottle might have cost the equivalent of thousands of dollars."

By Emperor Qianlong’s time (1736-96), the mania for collecting snuff bottles was well established. One of the largest hoards on record was that of Qianlong’s minister Ho-shen: When it was sold upon his death in 1799, it reputedly numbered 2,390 pieces.

Westerners started acquiring snuff bottles in earnest in the 19th century and have long been the biggest collectors—although most people in the field assume it’s just a matter of time before the mainland Chinese take over. Prices, which have seen a steady rise in the past couple of decades, have hit the mid-six-figure level for the rarest and very best. At Christie’s in March 2005, a buyer paid a record $665,600 for a Qianlong mark and period famille rose enameled glass bottle in an octagonal shape, with beautifully painted scenes of a European woman and child. But quality examples can still be had for less than $2,000, making snuff bottle collecting accessible to a broad range of buyers.

Arguably the greatest collection to come on the market in modern times is the one James Li formed with his late wife, Julie. Fascinated by the group of snuff bottles owned by James’s late father, Ti-Tsun Li, a Taiwanese diplomat, the couple began collecting in the early seventies. Working closely with Hugh Moss, they spent the next three decades amassing some 1,000 bottles, which they named the J&J Collection. "Julie loved small things, and with miniatures one can always make room for more," Li explains. But snuff bottles were rare in South America, where the couple lived (he now spends part of the year in China), so they arranged most of their travels around auctions and conventions. After his wife died in 2000, Li decided to sell, and Christie’s has been offering portions of the trove in a series of auctions that began three years ago. (The number of lots in each sale is always an auspicious 88.) The fourth installment goes on the block March 22 at Christie’s Rockefeller Center salesroom in New York and is expected to bring between $2 million and $3 million.

"Even before it came on the market, the J&J Collection was very high-profile," says Christie’s specialist Michael Bass. "For collectors, the J&J catalogues are kind of like the Bible." The sales have helped rejuvenate the market by attracting fresh interest, explains Bass, who notes that the buyer of the record-setting piece in March 2005 was a new client. All the J&J auctions have been extremely successful. "These are the star pieces that people want to have in their collection," Bass says.

Bottles with imperial marks are especially sought after, but they are increasingly scarce. Although you can find examples up until the period of Tongzhi (1862-74), the later ones often aren’t top quality. By then the ritual of using snuff had been widely adopted by the Chinese upper class—much as the tea ceremony was in Japan—and its ubiquity led to an explosion in snuff bottle production and a general drop-off in craftsmanship.

Perhaps the most desirable of all the imperial bottles are those with the Kangxi mark and period, called Kangxi yuzhi. Denis Low, a major Singapore collector who owns some 1,300 bottles, purchased his first Kangxi yuzhi at the J&J Collec-tion Part II sale. Made in enamel on copper, it’s one of only about a dozen of its kind left in private hands. James Li still has one, but he’s not selling it on March 22.

Among the highlights of the next J&J sale are three Qianlong mark and period bot-tles. One, in famille rose enameled white glass (estimated at $140,000-$180,000), was thought to have been crafted in the early 20th century until Hugh Moss recently discovered an identical one while researching the collection of Beijing’s Palace Museum. There’s also an enamel-on-copper example painted with two European dandies (estimated at $200,000-$220,000) and a glass bottle painted with egrets walking through lotus blooms, which had once been owned by the late American collector Bob Stevens (estimated at $180,000-$250,000). Another potential star is a black-and-white- jade bottle carved with a rocky landscape scene, attributed to the Suzhou school (es-timated at $120,000-$150,000). Between 1720 and 1850 this group of artisans along the Yangtze delta produced some of the most prized bottles carved from jade and agate. As with many Suzhou pieces, the bottle is inscribed with a poem. "It’s one of those things you can just keep looking at and see something different," Bass says. "It’s so minutely carved and the way they use the stone is very clever."

Despite the dramatic increase in prices, particularly for exceptional bottles, opportunities do exist. It would take a huge amount of time, effort, and financial in-vestment to assemble a group comparable to J&J’s, but it is still possible to amass a fairly comprehensive collection. As London consultant Robert Kleiner notes, if you choose carefully, you can buy very well between $600 and $10,000 (the range that represents most good available bottles). Price depends largely on the material: Jade, overlay glass, coral, and enamel tend to command more than porcelain, monochrome glass, and agate. "It’s much better," Kleiner says, "to concentrate on undervalued types—such as blue-and-white porcelain, inside painted, or hard stone—and stick to top quality than buy a mediocre jade bottle for the same price."

While there’s plenty of competition, the snuff bottle community tends to be more collegial than many other collecting fields. Members of the International Chinese Snuff Bottle Society visit one another’s collections and trade knowledge at annual conventions. It’s a field with relatively modest barriers for entry, but as James Li advises, it’s a good idea to "identify a dealer you can trust and whose taste matches yours. Take his guidance, find a category you like best, and stick to that." Li says his favorite snuff bottles were always whichever ones he had bought last. Like a true collector, he adds, "The most rewarding part is the thrill of the chase."

The Experts

Clare Chu

One of the most knowledgeable American snuff bottle dealers, Chu started in London more than 20 years ago and now runs the gallery Asian Art Studio. 425 Gin Ling Way, Los Angeles; 213-628-8316

Robert Hall

Involved with snuff bottles for three decades, Hall is available by appointment and operates an extensive Web site. 44-207/624-9300; snuffbottle.com

Robert Kleiner

In addition to advising major collectors, London-based Kleiner has written several respected books on snuff bottles. 44-207/629-1814

Hugh Moss

A leading authority since the early seventies, Moss deals privately from Hong Kong. He has a Web site with bottles for sale and a discussion forum. info@e-yaji.com; e-yaji.com

Auction Houses

The specialists to know are Harold Yeo at Bonhams & Butterfields in San Francisco (415-503-3271), Michael Bass at Christie’s (212-636-2180), and Joe-Hynn Yang at Sotheby’s (212-606-7332).

International Chinese Snuff Bottle Society

Founded in 1968 and based in Baltimore, this organization publishes three journals a year as well as a membership directory with dealer listings. It also holds an annual convention, which this year is in Toronto October 9-13. 410-467-9400; snuffbottle.org