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photographer E-Yaji.
The Mary and George Bloch Collection: Part X  
Sotheby's, Hong Kong, 1 June 2015: Lot 47 

Lot 47

Lot 47
Treasury 2, no. 285 (‘The Belfort Rank-enhancing Agate’)

Dendritic agate; very well hollowed, with a concave lip and recessed, very slightly convex foot surrounded by a protruding broad, flat foot rim; the natural markings in the stone edited to create a scene of two monkeys seated beneath a pine tree in a rocky landscape, looking up at a wasp’s nest (or an official seal wrapped in a cloth bag) hanging from the branches of the tree and at a flying wasp
Height: 6.85 cm
Mouth/lip: 0.80/2.40 and 2.32 cm (oval)
Stopper: coral; separate coral finial; gilt-bronze collar chased with radiating lines

Y. F. Yang (1977)
Belfort Collection (1986)

Jutheau 1980, p. 102
Hall 1987, no. 13
Kleiner, Yang, and Shangraw 1994, no. 227
Treasury 2, no. 285

L’Arcade Chaumet, Paris, June 1982
Hong Kong Museum of Art, March–June 1994
National Museum, Singapore, November 1994–February 1995

The carver of this bottle started with a piece of material that had a series of intriguing natural markings and proceeded to produce a powerful work of art that incorporated the best of both nature and the human imagination. The material is particularly intriguing and must have proved an exciting challenge to the lapidary. It has dendritic markings, striations of agate, and a wide range of colour variations and planes, creating a fascinating palette from which the carver could ‘paint’ his picture in stone. He has done so to remarkable effect, with several touches of genius that are standard to the best of this group of chalcedony bottles.

Two monkeys sit beneath a tree, the foliage of which is mostly natural to the stone without surface editing. With a little editing of the shape of the trunk, the tree is naturally so well defined that it is obvious that it is a pine. The configuration of the gnarled trunk and branches and the clumping of the foliage leave us in no doubt about this.

Apart from the charm of the main subject and the extraordinary realism of the tree, the setting is masterful. The variation in material used for the rock formation and the plane of light that dissects the foreground upon which the main scene is set are powerful.

One more touch of genius distinguishes this bottle. It is a common device on chalcedony snuff bottles, particularly noticeable in Suzhou carvings, to define the upper limits of a scene by a horizontal band of clouds around the neck or, more frequently the shoulders. This practice is brilliantly echoed here but with markings entirely natural to the material and without any surface editing. The neck and shoulders are horizontally dissected by bands of fascinatingly marked material, giving the impression of a rock face seen through bands of cloud, which then fill the rest of the back of the bottle, making it one of the more intriguing reverse sides on any bottle of this type.

To complete the picture on the reverse and transform it into an independent subject of considerable appeal, if the mist is read as blending into a body of water, the single streak of brown becomes a delightful image of a fish darting through the water. Read as such, our preconceived certainty as to which is the front of this bottle is shattered, and one is given a choice between two sides which, while quite different in feeling, are of equal power. A choice between the two seems to hinge upon whether one wants to be Confucian, strive for success in a well-regulated society and attain rank and emolument, or be a Daoist and delight in the joy of the fish.


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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