As a new graduate in art history in the late 1980s, Susan Page flipped through the paper when a job advertisement piqued her interest. “It said, ‘Assistant needed for Chinese snuff bottle dealer,'” she recalls. “I thought, what on earth is this?” It turned out to be Page’s calling, and she has since bought and sold these small, decorative containers – first with leading specialist Robert Hall, and now under her own name. “I have visited collectors all over the world with my bag full of snuff bottles,” she says. “People just love them.”
The Chinese began making snuff bottles in the middle of the 17th century (while the Europeans went in for boxes) when the custom of inhaling ground tobacco was first introduced to the country by the Portuguese. “The Kangxi emperor was given the gift of sniffing by two Jesuit priests, and he just thought it was wonderful,” Page said. “So much so that he asked his craftsmen to make bottles to keep it.” The earliest recorded vessels – no more than 6 cm high – were made of glass, and the earliest surviving examples date to about 1700.
“It is widely believed that the 18th-century imperial bottles are the best,” says Page, adding that palace-made stone versions – in jade but also lapis lazuli, agate and carnelian – began to appear around 1750. “The sniffing habit then spread from the court to the general population and really took hold in the 19th century.”
Page’s current choice costs between £ 800 and £ 20,000, ranging from glass to porcelain to “one made from a mandarin grown in a mold”, she says, emphasizing a peculiar sub-genre of plant-based snuff bottles . “My most expensive was a rare cylindrical spinach green jade, but my favorite is an 18th-century glass bottle with a red glass lid. [£14,000]. It shows a stylized phoenix on one side and a dragon on the other; it’s just so beautiful and lyrical. ”
Another intricate style, developed in the early 19th century, involved carefully painting the interiors of glass or crystal bottles with scenes of people, wildlife, or landscapes. “They used curved bamboo or a very, very fine brush; they are really extraordinary, ”says Michael Hughes, Bonhams’ head of Chinese ceramics and artwork for the United States. “The market for them has grown tremendously. Anything with writing on it is especially highly valued. ” Last September, at Bonhams’ sales of the Manfred Arnold and Emily Byrne Curtis collections of Chinese snuff bottles, late-19th-century and early-20th-century specimens sold for between $ 765 and just over $ 20,000.
WHERE TO BUY
Bertrand de Lavergne bertranddelavergne.com
Brafa June 19-26, brafa.art
Robert Hall snuffbottle.com
WHERE TO SEE
Burghley House Lincolnshire, burghley.co.uk
Asian Art Museum San Francisco, asianart.org
National Palace Museum Taipei City, theme.npm.edu.tw
WHAT TO READ
Collect Chinese snuff bottles by Susan Page
WHAT TO JOIN
The International Chinese Snuff Bottle Association, snuffbottlesociety.org
For certain imperial items, however, prices can be “stratospheric,” Hughes says, especially for early enamelled examples, including one of the Qianlong Palace workshops that fetched $ 3,328,400 at Bonhams in 2011. At Sotheby’s Hong Kong, Julian King notes that the snuff bottle market was “very slow from around mid-2015, until the first online sale [from one private German collector] we held in February 2021 ”. The highest price went to an enamelled metal bottle showing a beautiful pink landscape from the Jiaqing period (1796-1820), which sold for HK $ 3,024,000 (about £ 288,270) – “the highest price for any snuff bottle in recent years “, says King.
Another scarce enameled bottle bearing the Qianlong Emperor’s mark (1736-1795) will be auctioned on March 24 at Christie’s in New York. “It’s a beautiful bottle that depicts birds on flower branches and butterflies,” says Andrew Lueck of the lot, which has an estimate of $ 400,000- $ 600,000.
On the more affordable side of the market, Paris-based trader Bertrand de Lavergne (who will be at Brussels’ Brafa Stock Exchange in June) is holding pieces starting at € 1,000. Porcelain bottles are well represented, with blue-and-white designs alongside “about 10 polychrome bottles from the Daoguang period ([1821-1850] made in the imperial kilns of Jingdezhen ”for up to € 10,000.
“I’m one of the more impeccable collectors,” says Jeremy Levine, one of Susan Page’s London-based clients, who prefers hollowed-out jade pebbles. “They are very tangible, a bit like a worry. Holding a large piece of jade just feels nice. ” For lovers Hikari Yokoyama, founder of interior design and art curation firm Naum House, comes with aesthetics first: “I love finding them in flea markets and antique stores,” she says.
And in LA, more than 30 years ago, collector Richard Liu first came across an interior-painted bottle in Chinatown. “I now have about 450 bottles, mostly in glass and porcelain,” he says. “There is a seemingly infinite variety in terms of shape and color.” While the collection of snuff bottles is a way to learn more about his Chinese heritage, it is also a very sociable pastime for Liu, a member of the International Chinese Snuff Bottle Society who attends his annual conventions. “It is a small community, all very dedicated, but also very friendly and communicative. There is very little competitiveness; it’s not fun. ” And it’s definitely not something to sniff out.