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photographer E-Yaji.
Snuff Bottles from the Mary and George Bloch Collection: Part I  
Bonham's, Hong Kong, 28 May 2010: Lot 30 

Lot 30

 
 

Lot 30
Treasury 1, no. 49
HK$144,000

The Count Blucher Conversion

Nephrite of pebble material; well hollowed and carved in the form of a recumbent bridled horse turning its head back to look at a gibbon perched on its back; the gibbon holds the horse’s halter and has its hand on its own head while returning the horse’s stare
 Sculpture: 1600–1780
Conversion to a snuff bottle: 1644–1940
Length: 6.68 cm
Height: 4.75 cm
Mouth:  0.70 cm
Stopper: coral, carved with a formalized fruiting branch; pearl finial

Lot 30 Provenance:
Michael Stern
Sydney L. Moss Ltd.
Kurt Graf Blucher von Wahlstatt (Count Blucher)
Hugh M. Moss Ltd.
Emily Byrne Curtis
Sotheby’s, New York, 1 July 1985, lot 213
Hugh M. Moss Ltd. (Hong Kong, 1986)
Published:
Sydney L. Moss, Ltd 1995, p. 9, no. 23
Moss 1971a, p. 73, no. 31
Kleiner 1987, no. 60
Galleries Lafayette 1990, p. 6, fig. 1
Treasury 1, no. 49
Exhibited:
Sydney L. Moss Ltd., London, March–April, 1965
Sydney L. Moss Ltd., London, October 1987
Galeries Lafayette, Paris, April 1990
Creditanstalt, Vienna, May–June 1993

Lot 30 Commentary
This is probably the most famous of all conversions, with its impressive provenance and frequent illustration and exhibition. Conversions are bottles which started life as another form and were later hollowed to create a snuff bottle. Although the original carving may be datable, the date of conversion can rarely be established with any accuracy. There is very little style involved in hollowing a snuff bottle, and what little is evident here currently tells us too little about dating to be of much use. Had the hollowing been a virtuoso performance, which is practically never the case with conversions, we might be able to suggest a mid-Qing period for the hollowing. With simply adequate hollowing, however, all we can assume is that it was hollowed enough for use, which means it might have been an early conversion. If it were simply drilled, or otherwise non-functional as a
snuff bottle, then we could assume a conversion date after the mid-nineteenth century, and probably into the late Qing or Republican period. At that time foreign collectors became a serious factor in the marketplace and often did not demand even functional hollowing, let alone good hollowing. More recent conversions would, again, have been done more painstakingly because today the market would demand that their conversions look as if they had been used or at least were usable. In this case, however, we know that the bottle existed in this form from the mid-twentieth century, since Michael Stern formed his collection in the 1950s and early 1960s, disposing of it through Sydney L. Moss Ltd., providing Hugh Moss with the opportunity for his first catalogue and exhibition of snuff bottles (Sydney L. Moss Ltd 1965). The conversion is likely, therefore, to be an early one and the bottle was probably used for snuff, in which case the most likely period of conversion is during the mid-Qing period, and perhaps before the latter part of the nineteenth century.

The fact that the bottle is converted is hardly in question. The cutting of the opening is left with a quite different finish from the rest of the bottle and the slightly irregular, flattened area needed to allow for a stopper to sit flush with the surface is out of keeping with the original sculpture. It is also likely that had the maker of the horse intended a snuff bottle the stopper would have been better integrated into the form, with the horse’s head forwards and the mouth of the horse doubling for that of the bottle (although a horse does not lend itself to such usage so readily as other animals with shorter necks). As a rule only the seated bears in white nephrite (see, for instance, Treasury 1, no. 42) and standing figural forms in ceramics and other materials tend to have stoppers set in the tops of their heads, and then the configuration is still sensible for a snuff-bottle since it is the top of the form. To set it in the chest of a horse is not a likely snuff bottle maker’s style, although there are two known agate stag-form snuff bottles with their chests drilled for the mouth of a snuff bottle where the existence of two, both from the same carver, suggests that they were probably not conversions (see Moss, Graham, and Tsang 1993, no. 163 and p. 757).

An unquestioned conversion of a probably late-Ming buffalo carving which was sculpturally in a class with this one as a small animal carving was sold by Sotheby’s, New York, 12 October 1993, lot 198, and had its hole drilled in a similar position to this one.

Assuming that this particular bottle is a conversion, the original would have been a small sculpture for the educated aesthete, perhaps doubling as a paper-weight as so many of these small stone and bronze sculptures did for scholars and artists. Most aesthetes were scholars and artists, since without literacy, which included mastery to some extent of the calligrapher’s brush and ink, they could hardly be members of the influential minority which governed and to a very large extent defined aesthetics. It has been suggested that it might be a converted pendant but it is too heavy for such use, and in any case there is no place for a suspension cord, essential for a pendant which, by definition, hangs from something. It was clearly conceived as an independent sculpture, made to stand on its flattened base and on the folded legs of the horse, in which position it is entirely comfortable visually. As such it is superbly carved, the interaction between
the horse and monkey beautifully expressed, and the pose and detailing of very high quality judged by the demanding standards of either snuff bottle carving or miniature sculpture. The disposition, carving and finish of the horse’s hooves are particularly impressive and fluent and sum up the mastery of the original carver.

The only remaining problem is the dating of the original carving. The style and quality would allow for a date at any time from the late Ming to the latter part of the Qianlong period. One unusual feature which may offer a clue is the inclusion of skin markings in two areas without incorporating them into the design. On the classic eighteenth-century carving of a bear and cub, made as a snuff bottle during the Qianlong period, from the Cussons Collection, once in the J & J Collection (Moss, Graham, and Tsang 1993, no. 2), a similar strip of colour has been cleverly used as the halter on the beast, whereas here it is completely ignored. This may suggest an earlier date than the Qianlong period. The use of natural colours in the material became so standard by the mid-eighteenth century that it is perhaps unlikely that any carver could have overlooked the possibilities of turning these two markings into a curved halter and making positive use of them. Since there is also an air of early Qing refinement to the carving, perhaps the most likely date is from say 1650–1730. However, there is also a fish-form snuff bottle attributable to the palace workshops and the Qianlong period which has similar veins unused as specific details (see Hall 1993, no. 25).

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