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photographer E-Yaji.
The Mary and George Bloch Collection: Part VIII  
Sotheby's, Hong Kong, 26 May 2014: Lot 1015 

Lot 1015
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Lot 1015
Treasury 2, no. 215 (‘The Perfect Circle Agate’)

Dendritic carnelian-agate; very well hollowed; with a flat lip and recessed flat foot surrounded by a protruding flat foot rim
Height: 3.68 cm
Mouth/lip: 0.69 cm/1.30 cm
Stopper: carnelian

Wing Hing (Hong Kong, 1985)

Kleiner, Yang, and Shangraw 1994, no. 210
Treasury 2, no. 215

Hong Kong Museum of Art, March–June 1994
National Museum, Singapore, November 1994–February 1995

Material referred to in the customs records as ‘carnelian’ was imported in vast quantities by foreign vessels. In 1868 – 1872, 3,558,682 stones and 242.71 piculs of beads were imported to Canton , with the highest volumes in 1869 and 1872 (China 1873, p. 9, seq. 113, accessed 30 December 2013; a picul is approx. 60.4 kg). Whether all of this was precisely the kind of quartz we call carnelian is doubtful, nor do we know how it compared with overland imports and domestic production. (‘Western agate’ and domestic agate were recognized explicitly or implicitly as distinct types by at least one Ming writer and one late-nineteenth-century writer; see Sale 7, lot 65.) But it is safe to assume that some of it was used for snuff bottles in addition to other lapidary art works and rosary beads.

The common and popular white and pale grey striated agate is here combined with red striations, qualifying it as carnelian-agate and making it an unusual specimen for the snuff-bottle world. What makes it even rarer as material is that the red colour becomes dendritic on the two narrow sides, allowing a charming interpretation as fan-tailed goldfish swimming among strange rock formations. Nor would it be difficult to imagine oneself, looking at the side with the more sharply angled white peak, standing in a precipitous gorge, gazing out towards a sunset beyond mist and distant cliffs. The other side can also be interpreted as more towering rocks. The central darker area could even be read as the Island of Penglai, rising vertically from the waves of the Eastern Ocean (the overtly intended subject of Sale 3, lot 11).

A large number of snuff-bottle forms based on a simple sphere can be produced by varying the degree of compression and the shape of neck and foot. But it is quite rare for the body of a snuff bottle to be a precise compressed sphere. As a rule, forms were arrived at visually rather than scientifically, and the sphere usually ends up slightly ovate, either vertically or horizontally. The visual impression, however, is usually of a flattened sphere—at the very least, the spherical origin of the form is still apparent.

In this example, however, the shape compressed is actually precisely spherical. Apart from the degree of compression, all that has been done to vary the spherical shape is the addition of a cylindrical neck and an oval foot. As is standard for these details, the width of the foot is greater than that of the neck. Otherwise, it would be far less stable when put down, and would be nothing like as elegant visually, resembling more a toffee-apple stuck on a thick stick.

Despite its small size, this bottle is formally faultless, thoughtfully and elegantly proportioned, very well hollowed, and impeccably finished with as crisply carved and confident a foot as exists anywhere in the snuff-bottle world. This bottle was produced by a technically masterful artist, and we may assume that the shape was not arrived at lightly. It is, therefore, also likely that the temptation to extend the compressed circle one way or the other for visual elegance, so often a solution for the snuff-bottle maker, was felt to be unnecessary here, since the vertical axis of the natural design on both sides gives the impression of greater height than width.


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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