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photographer E-Yaji.
The Mary and George Bloch Collection: Part X  
Sotheby's, Hong Kong, 1 June 2015: Lot 77 

Lot 77

Lot 77
Treasury 2, no. 363 (‘Prince Ding’s Pure Crystal Canvas’)

Flawless crystal with green and gold pigment; extremely well hollowed, with a flat lip and recessed, slightly convex foot; decorated with an incised design on one side of a crane reaching with its beak towards a cluster of lingzhi growing at the roots of a mature pine on the banks of a mountain pool fed by a waterfall, and on the other with a stag standing beside a rocky outcrop, at the foot of which there is another clump of lingzhi and from the peak of which grows a flowering peach tree, inscribed in regular script Qianlong bingwu yuzhi 乾隆丙午御製 (‘Made by imperial command in the bingwu year of the Qianlong era), the foot inscribed in regular script Daoguang jiyou Xingyouheng Tang zhi 道光己酉行有恒堂製 (‘Made for the Hall of Constancy in the jiyou year of the Daoguang era’)
Probably imperial, perhaps palace workshops, probably 1849
Additional engraved design: attributable to Beijing, 1956–1970
Height: 6.62 cm
Mouth/lip: 0.69/2.09 and 2.02 cm (oval)
Stopper: glass, carved with archaistic ‘C’-scroll motifs surrounding an integral finial; coral collar

Illustration: watercolour by Peter Suart

Madame Nel
Robert Hall
Emily Byrne Curtis (1986)
Robert Kleiner

Curtis 1982, no. 33
Beurdeley and Lambert-Brouillet 1984, pp. 158 and 159, figs. 114 and 117
Kleiner 1987,no. 141
Treasury 2, no. 363

Newark Museum, October–November 1982
Sydney L. Moss Ltd, London, October 1987
Creditanstalt, Vienna, May–June 1993

Nothing about this superbly made crystal bottle would disallow an imperial provenance from the mid-Qing period. The shape is a variation on that discussed under Sale 5, lot 163 and is similar to Sale 7, lot 65. It is apparently a Qianlong palace form and, since most of the forms and styles of the late Qianlong period continued into the Daoguang, there is no reason to doubt the mark, which states explicitly that the bottle was made for the Xingyouheng tang; it was not an old bottle to which Zaiquan 載銓(1794 – 1854) simply added his mark.

Although this is a courtly shape, we cannot yet be absolutely certain that it must have been made at the palace workshops. Zaiquan was a member of the imperial clan and a high official, to boot, but as a keen collector of snuff bottles, he would also have had other sources of supply. It could be of a type that was made somewhere else for the court (or even for the general snuffing or gift-giving public desiring courtly caché).

The material, form, and workmanship are all of the highest quality. Had it been allowed to remain as a plain crystal snuff bottle, it would be spectacular.

The fact that it is no longer a plain crystal bottle is the subject of some controversy.

Kleiner published it as an old bottle probably incised with its deer and crane designs in the post-1949 artistic renaissance in the arts. Emily Byrne Curtis then gleefully took him to task, since she had a hand-written receipt stating that it had been in the Nel Collection since the 1930s. Kleiner’s answer to this, apparently to Curtis directly, was that his reason for cataloguing it as such was because he had been advised that this was the case. No name was given, but it was Hugh Moss whose opinion was being expressed and who had advised the Blochs (and Robert Kleiner), that the incising was added. In the same review of Kleiner’s publication, Curtis also advised him to research thoroughly before publishing.

Excellent advice.

Research into the hand-written receipt to which she refers reveals it to be hand-written by the dealer from whom she bought it. There was no original receipt from Madame Nel, and although the collection was thought to have been purchased in the 1930s, there is no solid evidence whatsoever of this or to prove that, even if it was an early collection, nothing was added since.

This style of decoration links the bottle with a group of old bottles decorated probably in the 1960s, apparently in Beijing. By the late 1950s the arts and crafts of modern China had been brought under control; old masters were located and set up in government workshops with students to train. Markets for their works and earlier pieces the state was willing to sell were found largely through Hong Kong. At that time, the state warehouses were awash with unsaleable plain snuff bottles, many of which would be sought after today—but in those days of plenty, collectors preferred the more obvious, decorated wares. An obvious answer was to decorate them, which is what happened.

The Qianlong reign mark on this bottle is dubious, weakly drawn in unconvincing calligraphic style and with the unusual format of the cyclical date (corresponding to 1786) interposed between the emperor’s era name and the characters yuzhi (‘made by imperial command’).

Curtis raised the point that if the design was being designated as added in the 1960s, why not the mark on the base as well? The response is that there are a number of other Hall of Constancy wares with marks added to plain bottles, so the existence of the mark is not in itself a problem. Furthermore, the finely engraved designs and inscriptions of the 1960s are typically gilt, which is not the case with the mark here. And the workmanship is different from that of the design on the body.

The design is done with a series of diamond-point incisions of varying depths and with the cutting tool being used like a brush, leaving the incisions with texture and character. There is no difference between the way the tool is used and the way a brush would be used. Both are immediate and spontaneous. The Qianlong date is similarly done.

The calligraphy on the foot, however, is quite different. It is a very carefully contrived simulation of the appearance of brushwork. The shape of each character of the mark is first neatly outlined with a diamond-pointed tool and then the entire interior area is scratched very evenly until the whole character appears to have been evenly applied.

It must also be remembered that in the 1960s the only mark that carried any weight with unsophisticated Western snuff-bottle collectors was a Qianlong one, which is why a Qianlong date was added, somewhat incongruously, to the design. It would have been highly unlikely for latter-day engravers to put on the foot the complicated personal hall-mark of a prince who no one in the marketplace would have heard of and then add a Daoguang date, which would have been a commercial kiss-of-death at the time.

It is also likely that had the hall-mark not been on the bottle already, the artist who added the gilt incising of the two main sides would have been far more likely to put his fake Qianlong mark on the foot, in the normal place.

This type of mark is identical in technique to the stylistically similar Sale 3, lot 67, which has inscriptions giving the precise date of 1797 and the name of a studio in an area of the Summer Palace that was built in 1742. This technique may have been a mid-Qing variation evolving at court.

Another done by the same method, but in a different style, is lot 190 in the present auction.


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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