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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 29 

Lot 29

   

Lot 29
Treasury 4, no. 528
HK$48,000

Wilkinson’s Delight

Crystal, ink, and watercolours; with a flat lip and concave foot surrounded by a flat foot with a hexagonal outer profile; carved on one facet with a butterfly; painted with a continuous composition of nine fish, comprising six fan-tailed goldfish and three minnows swimming among aquatic plants in a pond with a grassy rock formation set on its bank, with a chrysanthemum and begonia growing around it, inscribed in draft script, ‘Executed by Ye Zhongsan in the third month of the year yisi’, with one seal of the artist, yin (seal), in negative seal script
Ye Zhongsan, the Apricot Grove Studio, Chongwen district, Beijing, third month, 1905
Height: 5.69 cm
Mouth/lip: 0.53/1.46 cm
Stopper: coral, with integral finial and collar

Lot 29 Provenance:
Puttick and Simpson (circa 1960)
Sydney L. Moss Ltd. (circa 1960)
C. S. Wilkinson (circa 1970)
Hugh Moss (1985)
Published:
JICSBS, Autumn 1982, p. 37, figs. 92 and 92a
Kleiner 1987, no. 275
Treasury 4, no. 528
Exhibited:
Sydney L. Moss Ltd., London, October 1987
Creditanstalt, Vienna, May–June 1993
Christie’s, London, 1999

Lot 29 Commentary
This is one of Ye Zhongsan’s masterpieces from 1905 (see discussion under Treasury 4, no. 527). The symbolic subject of fan-tailed goldfish in a pond is dealt with under Treasury 4, no. 488, and of a group of nine fish under Treasury 4, no. 527. The begonia and the chrysanthemum both flower in autumn and thus usually represent this season. That the bottle was already old when Ye painted it is suggested by the butterfly carved on one facet. Had Ye ordered the bottle for painting, he would never have asked for an incongruous butterfly to be added to one face, and then ignored it in composing his subject, other than to minimize its incongruity by painting the rocky outcrop behind it in order to have it interfere as little as possible with the main subject of his painting. The faceting of the crystal adds an intriguing dimension to the subject here. By refracting the light they throw patterns across the design like sunlight refracted by water.

Quite apart from being one of Ye’s finest versions of the subject in a lovely early crystal bottle, it has a special appeal to Hugh Moss, who once owned it for a while. It was the first inside-painted snuff bottle that caught his eye when he first joined his father’s business in 1960. It appeared in a minor local auction house catalogued just as a snuff bottle with an estimate of about two pounds sterling, a not inconsiderable sum for a snuff bottle in those days. Moss saw the bottle, was excited by it, went out and bought a copy of Lilla S. Perry’s newly published book, Chinese Snuff Bottles. The Adventures and Studies of a Collector, identified it as the work of Ye Zhongsan, and suggested to his father that they should buy it. Sydney L. Moss carried snuff bottles in those days, but without any enthusiasm and almost incidentally. They were intended not so much as objects of art but as a useful diversion for spouses and children of serious collectors so they would not interrupt them when they were considering a Tang horse, or a piece of porcelain or jade. His father turned down his request with a curt, ‘We deal in antiques not modern snuff bottles.’ After a day of guerrilla public relations, his father’s shattered peace finally prompted him to allow a small bid on the bottle. Armed with instructions not to exceed the estimate, he set off jauntily for the auction. The bottle quickly exceeded its estimate. He bought it anyway, at six pounds, and with a thumping chest returned to announce his purchase to his father. His father, not given to tantrums in the normal course of events, was icily furious. It was pointed out that if he could not tell the difference between an instruction to buy something up to two pounds and one to buy it up to six pounds, he was in the wrong business, and, that since that business belonged to his father, he had better quickly learn to follow instructions. Chastened but cocky as ever, Moss boldly announced that he knew he could sell it and that he would not have bought it at that price otherwise. The upshot was that Moss was given a fortnight to sell it at a profit, or the money would be taken out of his salary and he could take the bottle as a memento of his stupidity.

That afternoon the eclectic connoisseur, C. S. Wilkinson strolled into the shop to have a look around. Moss slipped the bottle into his waistcoat pocket and followed him around the small shop waiting for an opportunity to get ‘Wilky’, as he was known, away from his father’s clutches and all to himself. One arose, and he slipped the bottle from his pocket into Wilky’s hand and explained that he had just found it in a minor sale, identified it, and thought it was one of Ye’s finest works. He brought out Perry’s book and showed him the illustrations of others by the artist and then played his trump card: ‘I thought I might collect them.’ he said, asking Wilky what he thought of this plan. The moment the bottle was in danger of slipping back into the waistcoat pocket for good, Wilky decided that not only was collecting these things a good idea, but he himself should do it, starting with this very bottle, since he found it delightful. The bottle changed hands, the son was off the hook, and the father was convinced that he should be allowed a little more leeway in building up this side of the business since he seemed so keen on it and had just made a small profit in less than three hours.

It took Moss, who also started to collect in the wake of this experience, a decade to talk Wilky out of the bottle again so he could add it to his own collection, and only then did he realize just how stupid he had been. Paying Wilky several hundred pounds for it, it dawned on him that he could have had it for six pounds if he had failed to sell it all those years ago and settled for the disapproval of his father.

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Hugh Moss |