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photographer E-Yaji.
The Mary and George Bloch Collection: Part III  
Bonham's, Hong Kong, 25 May 2011: Lot 36 

Lot 36

 

Lot 36
Treasury 3, no. 414

A lapis lazuli snuff bottle

(‘The Seventh Pea Lapis Lazuli’)

Lapis lazuli; well hollowed, with a concave lip and small, concave foot surrounded by a narrow, flattened footrim
Imperial, 1750–1850
Height: 5.55 cm
Mouth/lip: 0.64/1.90 cm
Stopper: coral, carved with a formalized floral design; jadeite collar

Lot 36 Provenance:
Hugh M. Moss Ltd (1992)

Published:
Kleiner 1995, no. 297
Treasury 3, no. 414

Exhibited:
Creditanstalt, Vienna, May–June 1993
British Museum, London, June–October 1995
Israel Museum, Jerusalem, July–November 1997

Lot 36 Commentary
The most famous source of lapis lazuli is in the Badakshan district of Afghanistan, where mines have been worked intermittently for 6,000 years. According to Webster and Read 1994, the mines were visited by Marco Polo in 1271. During the nineteenth century a paler material was extracted from around the Lake Baikal area, which borders on Mongolia, and lapis lazuli was found in the Mogok region of Upper Burma, in the Dattaw valley. It is also found in Xinjiang province. Any of these sources could have supplied Chinese lapidaries during the Qing dynasty, and access to Burmese material would have been eased considerably by the eventual normalization of trade relations in 1784 after a prolonged period of belligerence. The military occupation of the Xinjiang region in 1759 would also have granted access to local lapis, and opened up the trade routes to the West to Chinese merchants and to the court, facilitating imports from Afghanistan. However, we know that the court had access to lapis well before these events. The imperial archives show that lapis bottles were made for the court in the Yongzheng and early Qianlong periods, though only in small quantities (Gugong bowuyuan 1995, p. 29). The stone also figured in Qing imperial ritual. In ceremonies at the Altar of Heaven, the emperor wore a lapis lazuli court necklace and matching stones in his belt. Just such a court necklace was sent as tribute from Guangdong province in 1771, the thirty-sixth year of the Qianlong period (see Tributes from Guangdong to the Qing Court 1987, p. 46).

The imperial collection in the National Palace Museum in Taiwan contains several lapis lazuli snuff bottles; Chang Lin-sheng 1991, pp. 262 and 263, illustrates eight. What is more exciting for us, and for this particular bottle, is that they are all of a very similar looking material, of brilliant colour overall, but with distinctive flaws and pyrites, and six out of the eight are of compressed, ovoid forms with cylindrical necks. If this bottle were put alongside the other six of the same form, the seven would look like peas in a pod. Hence our confident attribution as imperial and the name we have adopted for this lovely bottle.

Which workshop it was made in, however, is another matter. Kleiner attributed it to the palace workshops, which is certainly a strong possibility. There is a broad range of this popular compressed ovoid form attributable to the court in nephrite, and many of them must have been made at the palace workshops as a standard run, but the court also ordered large quantities of bottles from other workshops and it is not at all unlikely that a large chunk of lapis would be sent to some outside workshop with an order to produce a series of bottles of this form. Suzhou and Yangzhou were two major carving centres for the court and with a simple, easily repeated design of this type, it would have been easy to order sets of ten or twenty, given the availability of material, from a distant facility.

 

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