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photographer E-Yaji.
The Mary and George Bloch Collection: Part III  
Bonham's, Hong Kong, 25 May 2011: Lot 13 

Lot 13

 
   

Lot 13
Treasury 3, no. 382

A soapstone ‘leaf and butterfly’ snuff bottle

(‘The Chicken-Blood Soapstone Leafy Branch’)

Soapstone; reasonably well hollowed, with a flat, irregularly oval lip made up in part from elements of the design and with no foot; carved in the form of four leaves growing from a severed branch, which forms the neck and lip of the bottle; with a butterfly and a bee or wasp in relief on one main side
1750–1880
Height: 7.42 cm
Mouth/lip: 0.61/ 2.4 and 1.71 cm (oval)
Stopper: jadeite; silver collar

Lot 13 Provenance:
Private American collection
Christie’s, New York, 27 November 1991, lot 139 (part)

Published:
Kleiner, Yang, and Shangraw 1994, no. 250
Oriental Art, Spring 1994, p.27
JICSBS, Autumn 1995, p. 21, fig. 3
Kleiner 1995, no. 295
Treasury 3, no. 382

Exhibited:
Hong Kong Museum of Art, March–June 1994
National Museum, Singapore, November 1994–February 1995
British Museum, London, June–October 1995
Israel Museum, Jerusalem, July–November 1997

Lot 13 Commentary
This is one of the most impressive of all known soapstone snuff bottles. Not only is the material a valuable variety of soapstone in its own right, it is also an early example of a rare subject and extremely well carved.

The subject is a group of naturalistically rendered leaves with insects. Quite apart from its power as art and rarity as a snuff bottle, this material is among the more valued colours of soapstone. It is known as ‘chicken’s blood’, and the brilliant, variegated crimson colour running through parts of the material gave it its material value. One of the reasons why we can enjoy this material as a snuff bottle, which is rare, is almost certainly because it was not of more brilliant colour. Had it been, it would have been made into an undecorated seal. It is equally true of all other valuable colours of soapstone that the finest examples of the material do not occur as snuff bottles.

A few other examples are known in this distinctive stone, which seems to endorse the belief that the better the colour the less likely the material was to attract surface decoration, since all of them are plain and of rather more vivid colour. One was in the collection of the late Paul Braga (Hong Kong Museum of Art 1977, no. 166); it bears a Qianlong reign mark that appeared to be credible when we last inspected it, twenty years ago. The other two are a brilliantly coloured example in the Au Hang Collection (Au Hang 1993, no. 210) and a pebble shaped bottle in Kleiner 1990, no. 95.

Other examples may be of more brilliant colour, particularly the Au Hang bottle, but it is worth remembering that material alone never made for great art, although it may have inspired it from time to time, and imaginative conception, lovely carving, and an unusual subject must ultimately rank above material in the art of the snuff bottle, even if material is an important factor in the marketplace for that art.

 

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Hugh Moss |