Bell push, snuff box & other pretty little things
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    Auction Finds

    The transcendent beauty of Chinese snuff bottles

    The bottles were breathtaking. The colors looked as if they’d just been lifted from a rainbow and the carvings from a work of nature.

    They were Chinese snuff bottles, and I was looking through more than 80 of them on a page for a local auction house. Page after page I clicked and all that I saw moved me. I couldn’t wait to see them in person.

    When I arrived, I spotted the bottles in a glass case where the auction house keeps the good stuff. The glass door had been slid back and a few people were standing in front of the bottles, fingering them very carefully. From a distance, I saw that the bottles were tiny, almost hidden behind the white cards bearing their auction numbers. Nearby was an auction staffer on watch.

    Mother of pearl Chinese snuff bottle in form of a butterfly, $200.

    Mother of pearl Chinese snuff bottle in the form of a butterfly, $200.

    They were no more than 3 inches tall, many of them a tad smaller – small enough to hold in the palm of my hand. They looked so much larger on the website.

    Their diminutiveness, however, did not adversely affect their beauty. Even from where I stood as I waited for the small group to leave, I could see the splotches of bright yellow and orange and red snuff bottles, their colors as brilliant as I’d seen them online.

    The snuff bottles came from the collection of one owner who lived in Manhattan, according to the auction catalog. The auction house had sold some French-style furniture from the same New York estate not long ago, and this was after the owner downsized, according to a staffer.

    Chinese snuff bottles

    Chinese snuff bottles on shelf at auction house.

    Snuff isn’t foreign to me, because “dipping” snuff was (and still is) a cultural tradition among some southerners (especially in the rural areas). Women normally dipped snuff, placing it in the space behind their bottom lip, and men chewed tobacco by tucking a wad in their jaw. The snuff was carried in its tin box, not in pretty snuff bottles.

    The practice was not something you’d do in public. But U.S. senators were very open with it around the early 19th century. A snuff urn was located on the vice president’s desk in the Senate chambers, but the comings-and-goings of senators looking for a pinch got so disruptive that Vice President Willard Fillmore had it removed. It was replaced with snuff boxes on two sides of the room. The boxes are still in the chamber and are still filled with snuff.

    Snuff bottles, not boxes, were almost the exclusive domain of the Chinese (although some of the earliest were made in Japan, primarily for import). The snuff was inhaled, and was said to have medicinal properties.

    Chinese snuff bottles

    Enamel cloisonné bottle, left, $1,400. Another enamel cloisonné bottle, $4,000.

    Chinese snuff bottles were first made in the Qing Dynasty in 1644 and production was discontinued in 1911. Tobacco was first brought to Europe from America. In its powdered form it became snuff, which found its way to China possibly by the Portuguese.

    Jesuit missionaries presented the Chinese emperor with snuff in an elaborate box, but the emperor felt that Chinese bottles were a better vessel to hold and preserve it. So he had fancy snuff bottles made for himself and his family. Soon the bottles became a symbol of status, pride and wealth for those who could afford them. By the 19th century, they became widespread among the masses, most of whom carried porcelain bottles that were cheaper to make.

    All of the authentic bottles were handmade, and the designs on them were symbols that represented more than what was carved on the bottles (even the type of material had a double meaning). The earliest were made of glass, and the most precious were enamel on metal or glass, which can today sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

    Carved coral bottle, left, $550. Spinach jade bottle, $140.

    Carved coral bottle, left, $550. Spinach jade bottle, $140.

    The Chinese made snuff bottles of glass overlaid over glass, with the overlay carved into a design; porcelain, coral, amber, ivory, agate and jade. The stoppers were made to enhance the bottle. Some of the bottles at the auction were made of these materials.

    Given their artistry, the bottles are obviously collectible. The Pritchard Collection at the Oakland (CA) Museum of Art has a collection of snuff bottles from a private owner.

    Collectors prefer bottles that were used to carry snuff, and buy them for the “artistry, the craftsmanship, and the beauty,” one collector noted. The bottles have their own club, the International Chinese Snuff Bottle Society. As expected, there are fake bottles out there, and the society recommends buying them from reputable dealers.

    The bottles at auction were made of various of materials and bore equally different designs. Here are some others along with the auction prices (without the 22.5 percent buyer’s premium):

    Chinese snuff bottles

    Coral bottle with carved fish (some damage), left, $425. Coral bottle, $1,000.


    Chinese snuff bottles

    Carved agate bottle, left, $175. Carved moss agate, $125.


    Chinese snuff bottles

    Glass overlay bottle, left, $125. Inside painted bottle, $75.


    Chinese snuff bottles

    Carved amber bottle, left, $100. Carved angel skin coral bottle, $350.


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