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photographer E-Yaji.
The Mary and George Bloch Collection: Part IX  
Sotheby's, Hong Kong, 24 November 2014: Lot 10 

Lot 10

Lot 10
Treasury 7, no. 1709 (‘The Stevens Cicada’)

Wood, silver, brass, gold and silver foil, abalone shell, brown and gold lacquer (of the variety known as lac-burgauté); with a slightly convex lip and naturalistic foot made up of elements of the design; in the form of a formalized cicada, decorated with an inlaid design of abalone shell and gold and silver foil on a brown-lacquer ground, each main side with a cicada seen from above and decorated with series of formalized floral designs and other formalized patterns, with areas of speckling in both gold foil and abalone shell; the lip brass; the inner neck silver
Japan, 1854–1920        
Height: 6.62 cm (including original stopper)
Mouth/lip: 0.48/1.10 cm
Stopper: wood, abalone-shell, gold foil, and brown lacquer inlaid with a formalized floral design and other patterns; brass collar; original

Georgia Roode
Russell Mullin
Bob C. Stevens
Sotheby’s, New York, 26 March 1982, lot 198

Stevens 1976, no. 1027
Kleiner 1987, no. 208
Kleine Schätze aus China 1993, cover and p. 8
Chinese Snuff Bottles 4 (1966), p. 37, Plate E
Kleiner 1994a, plate 19
JICSBS, Winter 2000, p. 10, fig. 27
Treasury 7, no. 1709

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

This spectacular and famous lac-burgauté bottle was thought to be Chinese by both Stevens (who published it among his favourite bottles as Chinese and eighteenth century) and Moss (when he published it in 1966). Today, a Japanese attribution seems appropriate. Apart from the fact that we now know that the vast majority of lac-burgauté snuff bottles were made in Japan after the Kanagawa Treaty of 1854 and the Harris Treaty of 1858 provided a framework for Japanese exports, there are other indications.

The use of the thin brass lip would be most unusual for a Chinese bottle. The original stopper, a simple, straight-sided one with a domed top and matching design, is very similar in style to others found on a range of Japanese bottles, including most of the butterfly-shaped lac-burgauté bottles (see under Sale 4, lot 147; another appears on a bottle in the Marquess of Exeter Collection, Chinese Snuff Bottles 6 [1974], p. 19, no. O.47).

The most telling features, however, are the design and the way parts of the ground have been sprinkled with either gold or tiny fragments of abalone shell in a distinctively Japanese manner. Some Chinese lac-burgauté wares do have sprinkled grounds, but the grounds tend to define something pictorially in a particular scene (a wall, a rocky bank, and so on) rather than being used as decorative fillers or border patterns. Japanese design tends to be distinctively different from Chinese design, particularly in borders and other subsidiary patterns, unless, of course, the Japanese maker is copying or faking a Chinese original. In Japanese design, there is a greater tendency towards abstraction and asymmetry, whereas Chinese patterns tend more towards symmetry. When inlaying the wings of the insect, a Chinese designer would, for a start, almost certainly have depicted the veins of the wings rather than use a floral pattern of any sort. A Japanese designer would be more inclined to sacrifice the reality of the insect on the altar of design. Even if a Chinese artist decided to use a floral design, he would be unlikely to combine large flower heads with a randomly interspersed floral-diaper design.

The bottle’s Japanese origins are also revealed by the way the floral diaper has been achieved. A Chinese artist would certainly have repeated the same pattern throughout the area where the diaper was used, whereas here the Japanese artist, with his subtler approach to abstraction, has varied the diaper. Parts of it are in abalone shell and in gold foil, and the constituent unit is not a diaper cell as such but a figure that might be described as a ‘Y’ with threefold symmetry, like a tiny three-bladed wind turbine, or a three-armed starfish with each arm rotated 120 degrees from its neighbouring arm. These figures touch at the tips of the blades; if they were all the same colour and were composed of thinner lines, they would appear as quasi-regular rhombic tiling, but because each little ‘starfish’ can suddenly be a different colour of shell or be gold instead of shell, the pattern presents itself as far more varied and interesting. (One's sense of the pattern also changes as one looks at the bottle at varying distances.)

As a final Japanese touch, the tiling has been dusted with gold pigment and partially rubbed off again to give it yet another layer of subtle texturing. This dusting of gold is concentrated on the gold-inlaid cells of the pattern, which never occurs on Chinese wares.

Another point worth making is that the standard Chinese cicada-form snuff bottle depicts a single insect, showing its upper body on one side and its underside on the other. This one is, in fact, two cicadas, since it is shown from the top on both main sides—just like butterflies from the workshop of the Tsuda 津田 family (see Sale 4, lot 147).

When Kleiner published this bottle, he accepted that it was probably Japanese but suggested that it might be from the earlier nineteenth century. This would pose an intriguing possibility: that the Japanese were making snuff bottles for the Chinese market, rather than for a Western export market, prior to 1854. It is possible that traders from the Ryukyu Islands, where it could have been made, exported a limited number of locally-made snuff bottles across the three-hundred or so miles of the East China Sea that separate the islands from Fujian province. This might account for the greater wear that often affects the brownish lacquer ground on the series of bottles represented by this example. We cannot yet rule out this possibility entirely, but we are more inclined to the belief that this is simply an unusual product from the broader group of Japanese bottles of the post-1854 era.

The body of this bottle is made of wood, a very light wood. The lip and collar for the stopper are of brass, but the inner neck is lined with silver, another unusual departure from the standard use of a single type of metal for lip, neck, and body.

This remains one of the most spectacular lac-burgauté snuff bottles known, and one of the rarest formally and decoratively. Were Bob Stevens alive today it would still, no doubt, be among his favourites. He lived his later years in Japan and entertained no prejudice against Japanese bottles in his collecting, seeking out with equal zeal bottles from both countries. How he managed to winkle this little treasure out of Russell Mullin, however, remains an untold story, unless Georgia Roode managed to charm it out of Mullin, and then allowed Stevens to have it. The sequence of the original provenance is not made clear in Stevens’ book.


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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