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photographer E-Yaji.
The Mary and George Bloch Collection: Part IX  
Sotheby's, Hong Kong, 24 November 2014: Lot 45 

Lot 45

Lot 45
Treasury 3, no. 384 (‘The Wise Japanese Soapstone’)

Soapstone, barely hollowed at all, with a lipped upper neck rim, concave inner lip, and protruding flat foot; carved with a continuous garden scene with plantain, convoluted rocks, lingzhi and grass in which a sage is seated holding a lotus-leaf-shaped sceptre while his standing attendant offers him a dish of what may be fruit and a stag reclines nearby, and with three children playing with crickets contained in covered cricket jars, all set against a formalized floral diaper, the shoulders with a band of double-unit leiwen supporting four pendant formalized lingzhi heads, the outer foot rim with a band of formalized leaf-lappets
Japan, 1860–1935
Height: 7.89 cm
Mouth/lip: 0.52/2.12 cm
Stopper: soapstone, carved in the form of a coiled chi 螭 dragon rising from waves

Hugh M. Moss Ltd
Margaret Prescott Wise (1970)
Edgar and Roberta Wise (1995)
Robert Kleiner (1996)

Stevens 1976, no. 649
Sin, Hui, and Kwong 1996, no. 221
Treasury 3, no. 384

Tsui Museum of Art, Hong Kong, October 1996

This is one of the impressive soapstone bottles carved in Japan at some time after 1860. It is related to both the copies of imperial ivory snuff bottles and to a series of ivory bottles embellished with soapstone detail (see, for instance, Sotheby’s, Hong Kong, 3 November 1994, lot 1011)—and, of course, by extension to many other late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Japanese bottles.

We can refine our understanding of the dating of much of this Japanese group by reference to collections formed in the United States and presented to Museums early in the twentieth century. The Drummond Collection in the American Museum of Natural History in New York has many of these Japanese bottles, including a double ivory bottle embellished with soapstone from the same workshop and probably the same hand as this. Drummond collected prior to 1928 and by 1931 had already promised his collection to the museum, where it was housed from 1933 onwards. A still earlier group has been in the Metropolitan Museum since 1921, from the Edmund C. Converse Collection, where another soapstone-embellished ivory bottle from this group is housed. These bottles were new when they were acquired by American collectors, although undoubtedly passed off both as old and as Chinese, and since Converse collected prior to 1921, we have a confirmed terminal date of production for that particular bottle.

There is a rather strange type of dragon for the stopper here, which refers to the typical chi 螭 dragonstopper of the Chinese snuff bottle, but misses the point that all Chinese stoppers of this beast are pretty well standardized, while this is a distinctively different beast and rising from waves, which never happens on Chinese stoppers, although quite sensible on an imperial work of art as the main decoration.

The soapstone here is of lovely, rich ochre yellow with pale red markings. It may be an indigenous Japanese stone, but since Fujian is a coastal province convenient to Japan it is also possible that it came from Fujian. It does not have the translucency and fascinating inner texture that makes tianhuang 田黃 so sought after in China, but the colour is not too far off. The Japanese used a great deal of soapstone in their inlay works and must either have had it locally or imported it during the Meiji period in reasonable quantities and of many different colours.

The children on one main side of this bottle are playing with crickets or katydids, insects kept for their chirpy song and their fighting ability. Two types of container were standard for them, the less well-known of which is this bulbous, barrel-shaped jar with a flat lid, usually made of a refined stoneware but also found in other materials, including Jingdezhen porcelain. The children have small sticks to incite the insects to fight, and the pastime of keeping and fighting crickets permeated male society, with often enormous sums gambled on the outcome.


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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