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photographer E-Yaji.
The Mary and George Bloch Collection: Part IV  
Bonham's, Hong Kong, 28 November 2011: Lot 48 

Lot 48


Lot 48
Treasury 7, no.1664 (‘Golden Crown’)

A sapphire and gold snuff bottle

Semi-transparent sapphire, suffused with flaws, and gold; well hollowed, with a flat lip and protruding flat foot; the neck of gold extending down into the shoulders of the bottle; the narrow sides carved as flat facets
Probably imperial, 1700–1820
Height: 4.5 cm
Mouth/lip: 0.74/1.51 cm
Stopper: gilt bronze, chased with a dragon, the integral finial carved as a formalized flaming pearl, with integral gold collar

American (West Coast) private collection
Sotheby’s, New York, 6 April 1990, lot 190
Jin Hing, Los Angeles, (1990)
Hugh Moss (HK) Ltd (2001)

Treasury 7, no.1664

The likelihood is that most of the early sapphire and ruby bottles were made for the court. The solid gold neck is another indication of that; the court often used gold for imperial products, but it would be unlikely for a private workshop to waste gold making a neck that would look, when new, no better than well-gilded bronze. A plain bottle of this kind is otherwise difficult to date, but in addition to the beautifully crafted gold neck, the painstaking and extensive hollowing would suggest an early date. Because of its hardness, sapphire was commensurately more difficult to carve and to hollow, so such careful hollowing indicates that this came from a time when extensive hollowing was important. Metal necks and mounts in general were a typically mid-Qing feature of a range of courtly snuff bottles, as we can see in this collection alone (see Sale 1, lot 138 and Sale 3, lot 133). We suspect that a Qianlong date for this bottle is the most likely. Still, we know so little about earlier production, outside of a range of enamelled metal and glass wares and a scattering of other reign-marked wares from the Kangxi and Yongzheng reigns, that we cannot rule out a pre-Qianlong date.

Apart from its unique combination of materials and likely imperial origin, its deep, even colour makes this one of the finest pieces of sapphire known in the snuff-bottle world. There is, of course, no such thing as a gem-quality ruby or sapphire snuff bottle. Any stone imported to the Qing court (from Thailand, India, Ceylon, or Burma, the sources for the Qing court’s supply) that was of sufficient size for a snuff bottle would never have been hollowed out if it was flawless enough to be valuable as a gemstone, for hollowing would have recklessly destroyed its depth of colour. The ruby or sapphire material used for larger-scale carvings in China—and snuff bottles were ‘larger scale’ for gem materials—was always heavily flawed. What is unusual here is that the flaws are pleasingly even and consist mostly of a fabric of thin lines running through what an internal light reveals to be mostly transparent material of lovely colour. One can see why this piece of sapphire was considered worthy of a gold neck.

One indication of an early date is the shape, which follows the water flasks carried by Manchu horsemen. This heavily compressed spherical form, with or without flattened narrow sides, was common among early snuff bottles. It is echoed, for instance, in the magnificent set of Tang Ying porcelain bottles represented in the Bloch Collection by Sale 1, lot 27, and Sale 3, lot 29. There is one further formal connection worth noting: the shape of the neck. Widely flared metal necks appear on the group of bottles discussed under Sale 1, lot 138 and Sale 3, lot 133, which are attributable to Guangzhou. If the sapphire came from India, Ceylon, or Thailand—the three most likely sources—the stone would probably have entered China through the port of Guangzhou. If it came to the attention of an imperial agent or an official looking to present a magnificent gift to the emperor, it could well have been made in Guangzhou and sent as tribute to the court.

The stopper, once thought to be original, is almost certainly not. It seems quite possible that the bottle was without a stopper in the late-Qing or Republican period and one was made for it; the style of the decoration on the stopper would be consistent with such a scenario. Any original stopper for this bottle would surely have been made of gold. We know that such stoppers exist and that some enamel-on-metal bottles made on a solid gold body have matching gold stoppers. A stopper with an integral gold collar (and shaft for holding the spoon inside the cork) beneath a gilt-bronze collar, on the other hand, is an anomaly; we know of no other example. The maker here has carefully fashioned it to appear to be solid gold, cleverly gilding the upper surface and fixing it to a thin but solid gold collar.

The easiest way to test a stopper to see if it is solid gold is to put a tiny scratch into the surface and closely examine the metal beneath. The obvious place to attempt that would be underneath the collar, where it would not be noticed (and there are several such scratches here).

When this bottle was first acquired, it contained a mass of solidified snuff and the discoloured fragments of an old spoon, suggesting that it may have been excavated from a tomb at some stage.


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