Why Chinese snuff bottles should not be sniffed

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A fresh graduate in art history in the late 1980s, Susan Page was leafing through the newspaper when a job posting piqued her curiosity. “It was written: ‘Assistant required for the Chinese snuffbox seller’”, she recalls. “I thought, what the hell is this?” This turned out to be Page’s calling, and she’s been buying and selling these little decorative containers ever since – first alongside the great specialist Robert Hall, and now under her own name. “I’ve visited collectors all over the world with my bag full of snuffboxes,” she says. “People love them.”

The Chinese started making snuffboxes (as the Europeans turned to boxes) around the middle of the 17th century, when the habit of inhaling ground tobacco was first introduced to the country by the Portuguese . “The Kangxi Emperor was given the gift of snuff by two Jesuit priests, and he just thought it was awesome,” Page says. “So much so that he asked his craftsmen to make bottles to contain it.” The earliest recorded vessels – no more than 6 cm high – were made of glass, and the earliest surviving examples date from around 1700.

Qing dynasty glass bottle sold at Sotheby’s for around £1,350

A Daoguang period snuff box, €2,700, by Bertrand de Lavergne

A Daoguang period snuff box, €2,700, by Bertrand de Lavergne © Yves Breton

A 1780-1880 jadeite bottle sold at Bonhams for around £141,000

A 1780-1880 jadeite bottle sold at Bonhams for around £141,000

A 1925 glass snuffbox with a painted portrait inside sold at Bonhams for $20,312

A 1925 glass snuffbox with a painted portrait inside sold at Bonhams for $20,312

“Eighteenth-century imperial bottles are generally considered to be the best,” Page says, adding that palace stone versions – jade, but also lapis lazuli, agate and carnelian – began to appear around 1750. spread from the court to the general population and really took off in the 19th century.

Page’s current selection costs between £800 and £20,000, and ranges from glass to porcelain to “one made from a tangerine grown in a mould”, she says, highlighting a curious undercurrent. kind of herbal snuffboxes. “My most expensive was a rare spinach green cylindrical jade, but my favorite is an 18th century glass bottle with a red glass overlay [£14,000]. It shows a stylized phoenix on one side and a dragon on the other; it’s so beautiful and lyrical.

An 18th century bottle sold by Susan Page

An 18th century bottle sold by Susan Page

A bottle of 1720-1840, $11,000, from Susan Page.

A bottle of 1720-1840, $11,000, from Susan Page.

An 18th century bottle sold by Susan Page

An 18th century bottle sold by Susan Page

Qing dynasty glass bottle sold at Sotheby's for around £4,250

Qing dynasty glass bottle sold at Sotheby’s for around £4,250

Another complex style, developed in the early 19th century, involved painstakingly painting the insides of glass or crystal bottles with scenes of people, wild animals, or landscapes. “They used bent bamboo or a very, very fine brush; they are truly extraordinary,” says Michael Hughes, Bonhams Chinese Ceramics and Artwork Manager for the United States. “The market for them has grown tremendously. Anything written on it is highly prized. Last September, at Bonhams sales of the Manfred Arnold and Emily Byrne Curtis Chinese snuffbox collections, late 19th and early 20th century examples sold for between $765 and just over $20,000.

OR BUY

Bertrand de Lavergne bertranddelavergne.com

Brafa June 19-26, brafa.art

Bonham bonhams.com

Christie’s christies.com

Robert Hall snuffbottle.com

Sotheby’s sothebys.com

Suzanne Page
snuffbottlepages.com

WHERE TO SEE

Burghley House Lincolnshire, burghley.co.uk

Asian Arts Museum San Francisco, asianart.org

National Palace Museum Taipei City, theme.npm.edu.tw

WHAT TO READ

Collecting Chinese snuffboxes by Susan Page

WHAT TO JOIN

The International Society of Chinese Snuffboxes, snuffbottlesociety.org

For some Imperial items, however, prices can be “stratospheric”, says Hughes, particularly for early enameled examples, including one from the Qianlong Palace workshop that fetched $3,328,400 at Bonhams in 2011. At Sotheby’s Hong Kong, Julian King notes that the snuffbox market was “very slow from around mid-2015 until the inaugural online sale [from one private German collector] we held in February 2021”. The top prize went to an enameled metal bottle showing a pretty rose-toned landscape from the Jiaqing period (1796-1820), which sold for HK$3,024,000 (about £288,270) – “the price the highest for a snuffbox in recent years”. said the king.

Another rare enamel bottle bearing the mark of Emperor Qianlong (1736-1795) will be auctioned at Christie’s in New York on March 24. “It’s a beautiful bottle depicting birds on flowering branches and butterflies,” says Andrew Lueck of the lot, which has an estimate of $400,000 to $600,000.

Qing dynasty bottle sold at Sotheby's for around £39,000

Qing dynasty bottle sold at Sotheby’s for around £39,000

Yangzhou snuff box sold at Sotheby's for around £11,000

Yangzhou snuff box sold at Sotheby’s for around £11,000

On the more affordable side of the market, the Parisian merchant Bertrand de Lavergne (who will be present at the Brafa in Brussels in June) offers pieces from €1,000. Porcelain flasks are well represented, with blue and white designs alongside “about 10 polychrome flasks from the Daoguang period ([1821-1850] made in the imperial kilns of Jingdezhen” up to €10,000.

Bottles from Christie's New York “Rivers and Mountains Far From the World” sale, March 24, 2022
Bottles from Christie’s New York Rivers and Mountains Far From the World sale, March 24, 2022 © Courtesy of Christie’s

“I’m one of the poorest collectors out there,” says Jeremy Levine, one of Susan Page’s London clients, who favors hollowed-out jade pebbles. “They are very tactile, a bit like a worry stone. Holding a big piece of jade is nice. For aficionado Hikari Yokoyama, founder of interior design and art curation firm Naum House, aesthetics come first: “I love finding these at flea markets and antique shops,” says- she.

And in Los Angeles, collector Richard Liu first came across an indoors painted bottle in Chinatown more than 30 years ago. “Now I have about 450 bottles, mostly glass and porcelain,” he says. “There is a seemingly endless variety in shape and color.” While collecting snuff bottles is a way to learn more about his Chinese heritage, it’s also a very sociable pastime for Liu, a member of the International Chinese Snuff Bottle Society who attends its annual conventions. “It’s a small community, all very dedicated, but also very friendly and sharing. There is very little competitiveness; it’s just fun. And it’s certainly not something to sniff at.

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