From left A jadeite ‘mask handle’ snuff bottle, probably imperial, Qing dynasty, 1760-1850. Bottle 2⅗  in (6.9  cm) high, tourmaline stopper, dish 1⅛ in (2.7  cm) long. Estimate

Collecting Guide: 5 things to know about Chinese snuff bottles

The tiny and exquisitely beautiful curiosities that once housed tobacco are highly prized. Here, specialist Sherese Tong advises on how to start a collection. 

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.

An emerald-green glass facetted snuff bottle, imperial workshops, Beijing, Qing dynasty, 1720-1820. Bottle 1⅗ in (4  cm) high, tourmaline stopper, dish 1⅖ in (3.7  cm) long. Estimate HK$16,000-30,000. Offered in Chinese Snuff Bottles and Matching Dishes from Private Collections on 8 October 2020 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

An emerald-green glass facetted snuff bottle, imperial workshops, Beijing, Qing dynasty, 1720-1820. Bottle: 1⅗ in (4 cm) high, tourmaline stopper, dish: 1⅖ in (3.7 cm) long. Estimate: HK$16,000-30,000. Offered in Chinese Snuff Bottles and Matching Dishes from Private Collections on 8 October 2020 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

The sale Chinese Snuff Bottles and Matching Dishes, which takes place on 8 October at Christie’s in Hong Kong, features 108 bottles that all come with an accompanying side dish. These dishes would allow for a portion of snuff to be taken from the bottle and prepared for inhalation with perhaps a stopper, spoon or fingernail. While many pairings in the sale are not original, they all consist of the same material and represent the tremendous time spent by collectors scouring the market for such matches. 

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  • Sharpen your eye

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, 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.

A ruby-red overlay beige glass ‘egret and lotus’ snuff bottle, probably palace workshops, Beijing, Qing dynasty, 1740-1800. Bottle 2¼ in. (5.8 cm.) high, jadeite stopper, dish 1½ in. (3.8 cm.) long. Estimate HK$80,000-100,000. Offered in Chinese Snuff Bottles and Matching Dishes from Private Collections on 8 October 2020 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

A ruby-red overlay beige glass ‘egret and lotus’ snuff bottle, probably palace workshops, Beijing, Qing dynasty, 1740-1800. Bottle: 2¼ in. (5.8 cm.) high, jadeite stopper, dish: 1½ in. (3.8 cm.) long. Estimate: HK$80,000-100,000. Offered in Chinese Snuff Bottles and Matching Dishes from Private Collections on 8 October 2020 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

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  • Handle as many as possible

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.

A carved amber ‘stag and bat’ snuff bottle, the Amber Pebble Master, Qing dynasty, 1740-1860. Bottle 2⅛ in (5.3  cm) high, jadeite stopper, dish 1½  in (3.8  cm)  diam. Estimate HK$260,000-500,000. Offered in Chinese Snuff Bottles and Matching Dishes from Private Collections on 8 October 2020 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

A carved amber ‘stag and bat’ snuff bottle, the Amber Pebble Master, Qing dynasty, 1740-1860. Bottle: 2⅛ in (5.3 cm) high, jadeite stopper, dish: 1½ in (3.8 cm) diam. Estimate: HK$260,000-500,000. Offered in Chinese Snuff Bottles and Matching Dishes from Private Collections on 8 October 2020 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

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  • Select the best — whatever your price range

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.

A rare and superb painted enamel ‘European ladies’ snuff bottle and a painted enamel ‘landscape’ snuff dish. Bottle 2  in (5.1  cm) high, gilt-bronze stopper, dish 1⅞  in (4.7  cm)  diam, box. Estimate HK$450,000-600,000. Offered in Chinese Snuff Bottles and Matching Dishes from Private Collections on 8 October 2020 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

A rare and superb painted enamel ‘European ladies’ snuff bottle and a painted enamel ‘landscape’ snuff dish. Bottle: 2 in (5.1 cm) high, gilt-bronze stopper, dish: 1⅞ in (4.7 cm) diam, box. Estimate: HK$450,000-600,000. Offered in Chinese Snuff Bottles and Matching Dishes from Private Collections on 8 October 2020 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

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  • Seek established provenance

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 can offer the novice collector a reassurance of quality, authenticity and value.

The Qing dynasty jadeite ‘phoenix and bamboo’ bottle and dish, below, come from a private collection assembled over nearly 30 years with the guidance of Hugh Moss, a leading authority on Chinese snuff bottles. Moss has written numerous books on the subject, including Snuff Bottles of China and Chinese Snuff Bottles: From the Collection of Rt. Hon. The Marquess of Exeter, K.C.M.G.

A jadeite ‘phoenix and bamboo’ snuff bottle, probably imperial, attributable to the palace workshops, Qing dynasty, 1770-1840. Bottle 2⅛  in (5.4  cm) high, jadeite stopper, dish 1⅝  in (4.2  cm) long. Estimate HK$160,000-300,000. Offered in Chinese Snuff Bottles and Matching Dishes from Private Collections on 8 October 2020 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

A jadeite ‘phoenix and bamboo’ snuff bottle, probably imperial, attributable to the palace workshops, Qing dynasty, 1770-1840. Bottle: 2⅛ in (5.4 cm) high, jadeite stopper, dish: 1⅝ in (4.2 cm) long. Estimate: HK$160,000-300,000. Offered in Chinese Snuff Bottles and Matching Dishes from Private Collections on 8 October 2020 at Christie’s in Hong Kong


  • 5
  • Never stop learning

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.

A famille rose porcelain ‘scholar’ snuff bottle, Qianlong four-character seal mark in iron red in a square and of the period (1736-1795). Bottle 2⅚ in (6.6  cm) high, porcelain stopper, dish 1½  in (3.9  cm)  diam. Estimate HK$120,000-240,000. Offered in Chinese Snuff Bottles and Matching Dishes from Private Collections on 8 October 2020 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

A famille rose porcelain ‘scholar’ snuff bottle, Qianlong four-character seal mark in iron red in a square and of the period (1736-1795). Bottle: 2⅚ in (6.6 cm) high, porcelain stopper, dish: 1½ in (3.9 cm) diam. Estimate: HK$120,000-240,000. Offered in Chinese Snuff Bottles and Matching Dishes from Private Collections on 8 October 2020 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

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.