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photographer E-Yaji.
The Mary and George Bloch Collection: Part IV  
Bonham's, Hong Kong, 28 November 2011: Lot 126 

Lot 126

 
   

Lot 126
Treasury 7, no.1553 (‘Missing Toad’)
HK$125,000

A carved ivory 'Liu Hai' snuff bottle

Ivory; carved in the form of Liu Hai, bare chested with a looped string of cash around his shoulders, his loose-fitting robe tied beneath his pot belly in a large bow
1850–1927
Height: 8.55 cm (including original stopper)
Mouth: 0.52 cm
Stopper: ivory, carved in the form of a topknot of hair, possibly intended to be held in a tied cloth

Provenance:
Sir Victor Sassoon, Bart, G.B.E
Hugh Moss (HK) Ltd (1985)

Published:
Lucas 1950, vol. 3,no. 723
Kleiner 1987, no. 192
Treasury 7, no.1553

Exhibited:
Sydney L. Moss Ltd, London, October 1987

With a clearer picture of what constitutes Japanese production of ivory snuff bottles, we can now see that most ivory figural snuff bottles were made in Japan after 1854. There is pressing evidence that the present example, however, is Chinese. It was part of a very large collection of ivory carvings purchased by Sir Victor Sassoon (1881–1961). Sydney Edward Lucas, in a brief introduction to the impressive catalogue he prepared for Sassoon and published in 1950, notes that Sassoon formed the collection while in Beijing between 1915 and 1927. Sassoon then went on to become one of Shanghai’s leading businessmen and property developers. Lucas’s three-volume catalogue of close to a thousand pieces includes just over one-hundred snuff bottles. One of the monumental vanity publications of Chinese art from the twentieth century, it was published in a limited edition with each set signed by Sassoon. Because so many of the pieces were obviously made for him, it gives us an excellent impression of what was being made in China between 1915 and 1927. For Chinese dealers of the early twentieth century, Sassoon was a godsend: wealthy, uninformed, and intent on forming a major collection in a short period of time. Judging from the collection, which contains many old pieces along with the new, he was initially sold everything the dealers could lay their hands upon in the way of early ivories, but as these became thinner on the ground they obviously kept up the supply by having ‘antique’ ivory carvings made to order for him. Once such a well-financed and on-going demand was established, it would have had a widespread effect among ivory carvers and dealers, even from other centres of carving.

The contents of the Sassoon Collection do not suggest he had ready access to Japanese exports at the time (which were, in any case, targeted on the Western market), so his supply would have been primarily Chinese. It is quite obvious that while Sassoon may have stumbled across a few old bottles, the vast majority were made for him, and many of them by only a few different people. Page after page of similar bottles appear, practically all with matching stoppers, and with very obvious stylistic similarities. They were artificially aged, of course, and patinated in some cases, but the truth radiates from the pages of his book. That Sassoon himself believed them to be old is demonstrated by the catalogue entries, where they are predominantly dated to the eighteenth century, some to the early eighteenth century. Among them is an alarming number of quite impractical, highly unlikely snuff bottles in the form of vases, set on stands on which children play, animals sit, and figures stand, sit, or recline. One has a figure of Li Bai, the drunken poet, reclining against an enormous vase with his own covered jar of wine set beside it, all on a wide circular base (Lucas 1950, vol. 3, no. 725). We suspect Sassoon did not get out much, as a cursory look around the antique shops should have revealed that such elaborate, sculptural snuff bottles were not likely to be either functional or eighteenth century.

That some of the bottles were culled is evidenced by a group of them that were offered anonymously by Sotheby’s, London, 3 and 16 December 1997 (for instance, lots 588 and 569–579). How easily bottles can be separated from their original stoppers is demonstrated here, since by the time they were illustrated by Sotheby’s, someone had removed all the original stoppers—perhaps in a foolish, short-sighted, and indeed vandalistic attempt to obscure their true age.

This particular bottle does not fit into the group of obviously modern bottles in the Sassoon Collection, but given its company, we would be wise to allow that it might have been made for him. There is only one other figural bottle in the Sassoon Collection, and it is of similar style (ibid., no. 722), but it depicts a standing man wearing a sash and holding a vase on his shoulders. Considering the rarity of Chinese ivory figural snuff bottles, it seems unlikely that Sassoon would end up with two of them and that they should be stylistically similar. However, even if we cannot rule out so late a date of production, it seems safe to assume that both are Chinese.

This bottle is certainly one of the most impressive of the very few known Chinese ivory figural snuff bottles. It also has the advantage of having no apocryphal reign mark, as would normally have been added to Japanese versions, so whenever it was made, at least it makes no obvious pretence at having been made in the Qianlong period

In the present example, the entire sculpture has been radically simplified from the moulded porcelain models for the depiction of Liu Hai, and not just by the absence of the toad. But whatever the carver left out, he applied himself thoughtfully to what he included. This is an impressive figural sculpture, well observed and convincing, with the weight shifted to one side onto the right leg as the figure tilts his head pensively in the same direction.

 

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