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photographer E-Yaji.
The Mary and George Bloch Collection: Part X  
Sotheby's, Hong Kong, 1 June 2015: Lot 63 

Lot 63

Lot 63
Treasury 6, nos. 1277 and 1278 (‘Zodiac Backup’)
HK$60,000

Colourless glaze on cobalt on porcelain; two bottles, each of meiping (‘prunus-blossom vase’) form with a convex lip and flat foot; each painted under the glaze with an almost identical composition of the twelve animals corresponding to the Twelve Earthly Branches with the eleven terrestrial creatures set on a grassy bank while the twelfth, the dragon, emerges from clouds above, the neck painted with two flying bats; the base of each unglazed; the lip and inner neck glazed; the interiors unglazed
Jingdezhen, 1790–1840
Heights: 4.56 cm and 4.65 cm
Mouths/lips: 0.55/1.02 cm and 0.50/1.06 cm
Stoppers: glass; vinyl collars

Provenance:
Robert Kleiner (1990)

Published:
Robert Kleiner & Company 1990, no.118
Kleiner, Yang, and Shangraw 1994, no. 175
Treasury 6, nos. 1277 and 1278

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

The unglazed interiors here suggest a possible date from the Jiaqing period, but this single feature cannot be used in isolation as a definitive dating guide in the mid-Qing period.

This entertaining pair of bottles was not made as a pair, of course; they are simply two similar vessels made as part of the commercial mass production of a popular design that would never go out of fashion. Everyone in China was well aware of the animal that designated the year of his or her birth, creating an endless demand for subjects related either to a specific animal or to the group as a whole. At least one other similar bottle is known (Hugh Moss records), suggesting a more numerous series.

If these two had been truly a pair, one might expect to find six of the animals on each. The twelve animals of the cycle are associated with the Twelve Earthy Branches (zi, chou, yin, mao, chen, si, wu, wei, shen, you, xu, and hai) and are, respectively, the rat, ox, tiger, hare, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, cock, dog, and pig. The Branches were used in sequence to designate the twelve two-hour periods into which the Chinese day was divided (see Sale 9, lot 136 for a watch face marked off with the twelve) and, in combination with the Ten Heavenly Stems, to designate the years of the sixty-year cycle of the Chinese dating system. Even today, when you let slip that you were born in the year of the hare, say, many Chinese friends will size you up and calculate whether you were born in 1975, twelve years earlier in 1963, or in 1951, 1939, and so forth. If you are negotiating a marriage, it may be necessary to get down to the level of the twelve months and twelve hours, all counted by zi, chou, yin, mao…. and also corresponding to the rat, ox, tiger, hare…, to determine whether the prospective couple will be compatible.

Given that these are both miniaturized vases, there is a possibility that they were not originally made to contain snuff. John Ault noted a variety of medicines that might be kept in small bottles and illustrated several medicine bottles. He also raises the intriguing possibility of other powdered substances that were ingested via the nostrils, in particular Strobilanthes niveus, a medicinal plant snuffed to this day in Southeast Asia (Ault 1989). These miniature meiping might also have been part of a long-standing series of miniature vases for decoration. There was a tradition of such miniatures made in vast quantities to be shipped to Europe as decorative ornaments that continued into the nineteenth century.

The ultimate answer to all such questions as to the original intention of the maker is that the moment any small container was stoppered and used as a snuff bottle it became one. This would be true of the conversion of miniature vessels made prior to the introduction of snuff (although in our experience such adaptation was rare and most attributions to the conversion of early ‘medicine’ bottles arises mainly out of optimism on behalf of dealers and collectors). The same is equally true, of course, of retrofitting, where an existing small jade carving, for instance, is hollowed out and made into a snuff bottle.

Conversion may explain the unglazed interiors of these two bottles. Although glazed interiors were motivated by a perceived need to keep snuff in peak condition, there would be no pressing necessity to glaze the inside of medicine bottles or miniature vases with necks so narrow the interior could not be seen. Whatever these two meiping were made as, in the Bloch Collection they have become snuff bottles.

 

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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