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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 13 

Lot 13

   

Lot 13
Treasury 3, no. 405
HK$780,000

The Belfort Classic Sapphire

Sapphire; reasonably well hollowed with a flat lip and flat foot
Possibly imperial, 1770–1850
Height: 5.7 cm
Mouth/lip 0.56/2.14 cm
Stopper: tourmaline; jadeite collar

Lot 13 Provenance:
Hugh M. Moss Ltd. (1977)
Belfort Collection (1986)

Published:
Hugh M. Moss, Ltd 1976, no. 162
Jutheau 1980, p. 116, fig. 3
Kleiner 1987, no. 181
Treasury 3, no. 405

Exhibited:
Hugh M. Moss Ltd., London, 1976        
L’Arcade Chaumet, Paris, June 1982
Sydney L. Moss Ltd., London, October 1987
Creditanstalt, Vienna, May–June 1993

Lot 13 Commentary
This is one of the best of a series of early sapphire and ruby snuff bottles, several of which are of essentially this same compressed spherical form. For the famous Count Blucher ruby, see Moss, 1971a, no. 103, and for the Beatty example, Chapman 1988 p. 61, fig. 9, where fig. 10 is a related plain sapphire. Another plain, early sapphire bottle similar to this is illustrated in Hamilton 1977, p. 55 no. S–58, and one of a different shape in Ford 1982, no. 58. Another, with mask handles and a band of lappets around the base, was offered by Sotheby’s, Hong Kong, 28 October 1992, lot 422, while an old, fruit-form sapphire bottle is illustrated by Stevens 1976, no. 632, where a range of green jadeite bottles of an ovoid form similar to that of the majority of sapphire and ruby examples is also shown (nos. 438–441 and 449). The jadeite bottles probably date from the late Qianlong period into the mid-Qing dynasty, and there is no reason why the ruby and sapphire bottles should not be from much the same period.

Sapphire and ruby were among the stones classified by the court as ‘precious’ along with pearls, jadeite, cat’s eye and diamonds, while the ‘semi-precious’ materials were tourmaline, nephrite, amethyst, amber, turquoise, lapis lazuli, coral, quartz, agate, sea shells, tortoise shell and ivory (according to Guoli Gugong bowuyuan 1986, p. 30). The same source informs us that on court belts the use of ruby and sapphire was reserved for the emperor (p. 31). However, this does not mean that the materials were generally restricted to the emperor, since the hat-finial of the first rank of civil or military officials was also of ruby.

Sapphire and ruby are both of the corundum family and consist of crystals of aluminium oxide. If chromium ions replace the original crystal’s aluminium, the result is ruby. The Chinese might have had supplies from Kashmir, famous for its deep cornflower-blue sapphires, but the most likely source on a regular basis would have been Magok in Burma, where mining for both sapphire and ruby had been carried out since the late sixteenth century. This source would certainly have supplied the court after the normalization of relations in 1784 ended a protracted period of hostilities between the two countries, although illicit trade would have been sporadic before that date. We have surmised that this event led to the massive popularity of jadeite, which became well established as a precious stone only in the last decades of the eighteenth century (see Moss, Graham, and Tsang 1993, no. 60) and it seems likely that this group of early sapphire and ruby bottles, which so resemble their many jadeite counterparts, date from the same mid-Qing period and were probably made for the court. Burmese sapphire is characteristically quite heavily flawed, as is the ruby, but this is of little help in a snuff-bottle context where all material large enough to form a snuff bottle is going to be flawed. Another possible source was Thailand, where darker blue sapphires were found in quantity.
Early examples of sapphire and ruby are among the rarest of snuff bottles, although strangely they do not yet command anything like the prices of their jadeite counterparts which are relatively a good deal more common. This is one of the best of the entire group and in a class with the ruby bottle from the Blucher collection. The colour is extraordinary for so large a piece, deep, vibrant, brilliant and evenly spread throughout the bottle and even the pattern of matrix and paler flaws, which inevitably run through a piece of sapphire this size, are attractive and fascinating as texture. They read like bats flying against a deep azure sky or, to be more realistic, since bats only fly at dusk or during the night, chi dragons frolicking in high summer.

Harder than jadeite to work, and being a precious material and translucent, sapphire and ruby are never extensively hollowed, although this particular bottle is reasonably well hollowed, even by jadeite standards for the range of bottles of this general shape. It is also achieved through a relatively small mouth, a common feature of the oval bottles in sapphire, ruby or jadeite which may offer a further clue to dating. In 1888, Zhang Yishu wrote some supplementary remarks to Zhao Zhiqian’s Yonglu xianjie (see Richard John Lynn’s translation, JICSBS Summer, 1995, p. 18). He comments that originally the size of a snuff bottle mouth might exceed 12 mm but that later this changed so they would not exceed 6 mm. He puts no date on this change, but if we look to hardstone bottles with mouths of less than 6 mm for further information, it would seem that by the Qianlong period, and particularly the second half, the smaller mouth was already well established.

Among the many exclusions from Zhao Zhiqian’s references to particular types of snuff bottles in his Yonglu xianjie in the 1860sare ruby and sapphire, but they are today sufficiently rare that many collectors will not have handled one at all and in Zhao’s day, long before the copious illustrations of thousands upon thousands of snuff bottles from private and public collections, his range of experience of bottles would almost certainly have been fairly limited. His circle of friends and acquaintances would undoubtedly have provided him with access to a number of bottles, as would frequent visits to the local antique shops, but it is doubtful if he saw in his entire span of interest in the subject anything like as much as we have available to us today, given an hour or two with our many publications. Nor would he have had access to the imperial Collection, as we have today through exhibition and publication. Although well qualified, and renowned for his painting and calligraphy, Zhao was never offered an official position at court and died a disappointed man because of it (see JICSBS Summer, 1995, p.10). It seems unlikely that Zhao would not have mentioned sapphire and ruby snuff bottles if he had come across them since, having commented that jadeite was too hard a stone to hollow out properly, he would surely have been impressed by the hollowing of a stone many times harder.

Although marginally too large by modern aesthetic standards, the stopper here is sumptuously matched with its rare and prominent jadeite collar and tourmaline cabochon. It is, however, extremely practical, allowing a firm grip for its removal, however tight the cork might have been, and we may be certain that convenience of function in stoppering would have influenced aesthetics to some extent during the Qing dynasty.

 

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