In the late Ming period, tobacco was introduced into China by the Portuguese. Smoking tobacco was made illegal shortly there after, so enthusiasts turned to ‘snuff’ or powdered tobacco. Seen as a cure for the common cold and headache, snuff was taken for medicinal purposes. Soon, taking snuff became a socially acceptable pastime for the Imperial court. During the 17th and 18th centuries, Emperors Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong all partook, and of course the upper classes followed, and by the 19th century , the middle class had adopted the pastime. All three Emperors, and other influential members of court, regularly gifted snuff bottles to special courtiers and deserving officials. For the giver, the snuff bottle provided the perfect vehicle with which to illustrate their gentility and connoisseurship of of fine art, and for the recipient, these diminutive portable treasures were cherished and collected.
Snuff bottles were made from various materials that were also used for larger works of art, with some mediums being more rare and exotic than others. Materials such as glass, porcelain, jade, agate, amber, coconut shell, wood and pewter are just a few of the materials used among the snuff bottles in the I.A. Victor Collection to be auctioned on March 13, 2017.
The use of glass in Chinese works of art started in the late 17th century, when European missionaries sparked the interest of the Eemperor Kangxi with gifts such as a looking glass, Venetian goblets and a telescope with glass sphere. This interest in European glass making caused the Emperor to establish a glass works in China. He quickly enlisted the help of the Jesuits, who despatched a Bavarian priest, well trained in the latest European glass making techniques, to teach the Chinese artisans about glass production. Over the following century, glass became one of the most important materials used in decorative arts of China, with snuff bottles monopolizing the major part of there production.
Lot 293 is designed as an imitation ‘realgar’ glass bottle of an elongated form, with waisted neck and slightly concave foot. Realgar glass was developed at the Imperial glassworks during the Kangxi period when production was under the directorship of Kilian Stumpf and his fellow Jesuits, who set up the glassworks for the Emperor in the late 17th century.
Another glass example from the collection is lot 304. This overlay glass example is somewhat rare because of the various colors used and its double overlay design. It is of rounded shape with a double overlay of cinnabar red on green on a cafe au lait ground. The bottle is decorated with a female immortal punting a gnarled tree trunk boat with a basket of fruiting peach branches, the reverse with a fisherman punting his craft amid breaking waves.
Agate, with its contrasting layers and color variations, requires great skill to successfully work into a coherent and fluid work of art. Lot 305 in the Collection is a fine example of a shadow agate snuff bottle. The artist has interpreted and utilized the color variations in the translucent stone, while still managing to give the impression that they were not hindered or constrained in any way by the challenging material. In this particular example the loose robes worn by both immortals are carefully picked out and highlighted by the dark brown inclusions, as are the birds perched on the branches of the pine tree above. The technique used creates stronger and more noticable planes of color, giving the carving more depth.
Lot 242 in the Collection was purchased by the Victors in 1972 from Spink & Son in London. It was formerly in the collection of the famed connoisseur Baron George DeMenasce, of the prominent banking family from Egypt. Such a distinguished provenance adds distinction to the piece. This is an excellent example of the important role of provenance among collectors. Additionally, form and shape rank high in the criteria of importance in Chinese art in particular, and appreciation for elegance in form can be seen with this bottle. The piece is devoid of any decoration; its simple compressed ovoid form set on a concave oval foot, holds integrity in it’s own right. This elegance of form allows the material and its brilliant colors to speak for itself. The attractive stone with icy-white, bright apple green and lavender splashes.
-- With the contribution of Ashley Hill, Asian Works of Art Department
The I. Arnold Victor Collection of Chinese Snuff Bottles is a highlight of the Asian Works of Art auction on March 13, 2017. It comprises lots 228 through 305, with additional Chinese Works of Art comprising lots 86 and 142.