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The Mary and George Bloch Collection: Part VIII  
Sotheby's, Hong Kong, 26 May 2014: Lot 1055 

Lot 1055
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Lot 1055
Treasury 5, no.704 (‘Dust of the Mind’)

Opaque and semi-transparent variegated scarlet and ochre glass (known as ‘realgar-glass’) with a scattering of air bubbles of various sizes; with a flat lip and flat foot
Height: 5.2 cm
Mouth/lip: 0.79/1.68 cm
Stopper: coral; plastic collar

Robert Kleiner (1997)

Treasury 5, no.704

The mineral realgar, the inspiration for realgar-glass, is a poisonous and unstable rock that is almost pure sulphide of arsenic. While it is a rock (although softer than marble, and readily scratched with a pin), if left in sunlight for a period of time it begins to disintegrate into fine yellow dust. Realgar was recognised as a pest repellent and used for a red painting pigment, but it was also used for medical and alchemical purposes from early times. On the fifth day of the fifth month (a festival best known in the West for its dragon-boat races), in some regions of China realgar wine is still drunk and realgar daubed on the faces of children to protect them from pestilence. Fortunately for snuffers, the material was ill-suited for snuff bottles. Three snuff bottles only are known in the mineral itself; only one is made with sufficient care and hollowing to have been a candidate for serious use (Shuisongshi Shanfang Collection). But realgar could be imitated in glass.

The glass imitation seems initially to have been a product of the imperial workshops at some time shortly after 1696, but would presumably have been made at other centres thereafter. We can be reasonably certain of its longevity at the imperial glassworks from an example bearing a Guyue xuan mark, which we can now date to some time shortly after 1767. Wherever it was made, it was obviously immensely popular over a considerable period, and thousands must have been produced, probably at first mainly at court for distribution as imperial gifts.

The range of realgar glass is extensive, for the term covers almost anything that is of multi-coloured glass in which scarlet, yellow, and orange figure to a significant extent. The most common type is represented by this and Sale 7, lot 66, where layers of yellow-ochre glass are overlaid with brighter yellow and ruby-red glass. When blown into dimpled moulds, the polishing process removes some of the thin upper layer, which is usually red, leaving the typically dappled effect of realgar-glass snuff bottles. The yellow ochre colour that usually forms the ground for this type of glass tends to be opaque, but the red colour is actually transparent and appears to be ruby-glass, although often appearing more scarlet, due to the yellow-ochre colour beneath. This becomes obvious in this example, where the thickness of the red colour is unusual, forming almost the entire wall of the bottle at both shoulders on the narrow sides. With the benefit of an interior light, it becomes quite clear that the red is of a transparent, bright ruby colour. Repeating the experiment with a wide range of these bottles reveals the same phenomenon. Because the red glass is transparent with transmitted light, it also reveals bubble structures similar to those found in other colours of glass where the degree of transparency allows the air bubbles to be seen.

Like most realgar-glass bottles of this simple but popular form (variations on which are the most common shape for the type) this is blown into a mould, as was Sale 7, lot 66. Here, the narrow-side mould-lines are less obvious, and a dimpled mould has not been used. The only strong yellow colour shows through at the neck, a frequent phenomenon on non-dappled versions, since the neck was finished by the lapidary to correct the formal integrity, and he usually cut through the thin surface layer of red to some extent.


This is not the Sotheby’s sale catalogue. This is a product of Hugh Moss for the purposes of this website. For the catalogue details please refer to Sotheby’s website or request a copy of a printed sale catalogue from Sotheby’s.


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