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photographer E-Yaji.
The Mary and George Bloch Collection: Part VIII  
Sotheby's, Hong Kong, 26 May 2014: Lot 1053 

Lot 1053
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Lot 1053
Treasury 1, no. 37 (‘Symbols of Antiquity Burnt Jade’)

Heated nephrite with artificial colour; very well hollowed, with a recessed foot; carved on each side with a chi dragon entwined with a winged, fenghuang-headed chi, their bodies incised with archaistic meander patterns resembling clouds, with two distinct areas of artificial colouring, one brownish black and the other pink
Height: 6.69 cm
Mouth/lip: 0.66/1.99 cm
Stopper: rose quartz

Watercolour by Peter Suart

Robert Hall (1989)

Treasury 1, no. 37

This material is often referred to as ‘calcified’ jade, since it resembles the appearance of nephrite excavated from ancient tombs where the surface of the material has altered over the centuries to give it a chalky appearance. It is also known as ‘chicken-bone’ jade (jigu yu 雞骨玉) for obvious reasons or, usually more accurately in the case of snuff bottles, ‘burnt’ jade. Once jade is heated, it can be difficult to judge whether the original material was nephrite or jadeite, but the style of carving here is typical of mid-Qing nephrite carving and would be exceptional for jadeite, so we may be reasonably certain it is the former.

The surface polish suggests that the heating and staining of the material took place before it was polished, since a bottle that is subjected to heat after polishing tends to acquire a rather dull, desiccated appearance. This would leave two possible methods of achieving the end result we see — that a larger piece of material was heated prior to carving, or that the bottle was carved first, then heated, stained, and finally polished, which is perhaps the more likely. Certainly the stain was added directly to the finished carving before polishing.

Archaic jade carvings were faked in this way, particularly in the late-Qing period and into the twentieth century. There can be no question of any intent to deceive here, however. No jade snuff bottle is old enough to have acquired the natural calcification found on material buried for perhaps two thousand years, nor could the chi depicted here be anything other than archaistic. The attempt to make the material look calcified is simply an additional language available to the mid-Qing carver, and it has been used powerfully.

On Qing carvings chi were frequently shown with a variety of different heads, most recognizable as standard chi-dragon heads, but some more feline; and one popular variation is distinctly fenghuang-like. Sometimes the head of the fenghuang simply replaces that of the chi, leaving the body largely unchanged. Here, however, the bird-like creature has a distinct, if rather heraldic-looking wing rising from its shoulder, which, being in profile, suggests the second wing behind it. In fact, both beasts are unusual in their depiction, since neither seem to have the legs common to the chi, although certain flame-like protrusions from the long sinuous bodies could be interpreted as legs.

There is a certain air of nobility about this bottle. With its generous size and confident bearing, its evocative references to the past in both subject matter and material, and the sinuous lines of the beasts, it has the dual capacity to work with equal power as free-standing sculpture and as a snuff bottle to be appreciated in the hand. From either distance, the low relief carving is given much greater three-dimensionality than it actually has by the clever interweaving of the bodies, which also sets up an intriguingly complex textural pattern.


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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