The tiny and exquisitely beautiful curiosities that once housed tobacco are highly prized. Specialist Margi Gristina advises on how to start a collection, illustrated with lots from our 13 September sale
Snuff bottles have fascinated Western and Asian collectors since they were first produced in China in the early part of the 18th century. Conceived as precious containers for ground tobacco imported into China, snuff bottles were initially made for the emperor and the court, and eventually produced in much greater quantities for a public who enjoyed their functionality as well as their display as symbols of status.
These exquisite miniatures, which measure between one-and-a-half and three inches high, not only illustrate the technical virtuosity of Qing dynasty craftsmen, but also provide a window on life and culture in late imperial China.
For example, early 18th-century imperial glass and painted enamel bottles show the influence of the Jesuits at court, and the imperial fascination with Western technical advances. Carved examples in different mediums such as jade and glass illustrate the relationships between craftsmen working at the imperial workshops, and the favoured motifs across materials. Later 19th-century versions reveal how earlier imperial tastes became popular with the general public, while confirming the continuing status of snuff use in Qing society.
The field of snuff bottles is vast, and like other categories of Qing dynasty works of art they include examples across many mediums: glass, stone, jade, agate, wood, ivory, lacquer and mixed media.
To sharpen one’s eye, it is helpful to look at as many examples as possible. If you’re attracted to a particular type, such as carved overlay glass, focus on this group to understand subtle differences in workmanship. For example, one bottle may exhibit a rare colour combination, while others may show a rare scene, or very fine carving.
Snuff bottles were made to fit comfortably in the hand. One of the pleasures of collecting them is handling them, so be sure to handle as many bottles as you can. Feel the difference in weight between a well-hollowed bottle and one that has not been so carefully refined. Notice the years of wear that can bring the surface of a piece to a soft and luxurious polish.
Whatever your price range, look for outstanding examples. An imperial glass snuff bottle can be acquired for under $3,000, while superb and rare examples can range from tens to hundreds of thousands. Imperial, 18th-century bottles with reign marks tend to achieve the highest prices at auction, particularly those in painted enamel on glass or metal.
There have been a number of distinguished collections of snuff bottles sold at auction over the past 10 years. Selecting works that were once part of an esteemed and carefully selected collection, such as the J&J Collection, can offer the novice collector a reassurance of quality, authenticity and value.
When starting any collection, it is useful to read as much about the category as possible. There have been many informative books on snuff bottles published in the last 20 years, filled with useful attribution information as well as beautiful photography.
Also, consult the Journal of the International Chinese Snuff Bottle Society for the most recent and up-to-date scholarship. The ICSBS comprises a passionate group of collectors, dealers and auction house specialists and holds annual conventions that are not to be missed by the serious collector.