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photographer E-Yaji.
The Mary and George Bloch Collection: Part X  
Sotheby's, Hong Kong, 1 June 2015: Lot 21 

Lot 21

Lot 21
Treasury 7, no. 1708 (‘Scrolling Abstraction’)

Wood, silver, gold and silver foil, abalone shell, and black, brownish-black, and cinnabar-red lacquer (of the variety known as lac-burgauté); with a flat lip and concave foot surrounded by a flat foot rim; with a raised panel on each of the four sides separated from each other and from the shoulders/neck and base/foot areas by scalloped panels of brown lacquer filled with tiny fragments of gold foil, the rest decorated with an inlaid design of abalone shell and gold and silver foil on a black lacquer ground with an identical design of formalized floral scrolls; the foot inlaid in abalone shell, with two characters in regular script, Qianlong 乾隆; the lip silver; the interior painted cinnabar-red
Japan, 1854–1930
Height: 6.65 cm
Mouth/lip: 0.73/1.70 cm
Stopper: wood and silver lacquer; silver collar; original

Fisher Collection
Lilla S. Perry
Albert Pyke Collection, Los Angeles (circa 1963)
Sydney L. Moss Ltd
Elizabeth and Ladislas Kardos
Sotheby’s, New York, 1 July 1985, lot 102
Janos Szekeres
Sotheby’s, New York, 5 June 1987, lot 111

Connaissance des arts, November 1971, p. 106
Vancouver Centennial Museum, 1977, Colour slide folder, no. 98.
Arts of Asia, January–February 1978, p. 93, fig. 40
Arts of Asia, November–December 1985, p. 135.
Kleiner 1995, no. 359
Treasury 7, no. 1708

Vancouver Centennial Museum, 1977
British Museum, London, June–October 1995
Israel Museum, Jerusalem, July–November 1997

The two-character reign mark was very rarely used during the Qianlong reign but does appear on other Japanese snuff bottles (see, for instance, lot 89 in this auction). Even more indicative of the bottle’s Japanese origin are the technique of the gold-dusted frame to the panels and the overall design of a formalized floral scroll. Additionally, the silver lip is typical of a range of Japanese lac-burgauté snuff bottles and does not seem to be found on Chinese snuff bottles.

If any further proof is needed, it is provided by the original, matching stopper. It appears to be of silver, but its very light weight prompted suspicion, so it was very carefully dismantled: it proved to be of wood, coloured with that distinctive dull-silver lacquer that looks exactly like tarnished silver and is so typical of Japan. The collar, a thin sliver of real silver, was then fixed to it. Japanese lac-burgauté snuff bottles are made on either metal or wood and can be fitted with either a brass or a silver lip (for others in silver see Sale 7, lots 121 and 158, and lot 95 in the present auction).

Apart from being one of the rarest of the Japanese lac-burgauté bottles, this is also one of the finest. The design is not only cleverly conceived, it is extremely unusual, quite different from the standard formalized floral scroll borrowed from Chinese lac-burgauté designs. Each element has been picked out in a different material. The flower heads, a simple arrangement of silver- or gold-foil elongated rhomboids radiating from a square central point, are linked by curling dotted lines made of square pieces of gold foil for the vine and tendrils, while the background is filled with variously shaped abalone-shell fragments to stand for leaves. It is a simple design, and nothing like as difficult to achieve or as realistic as the more standard formalized floral scroll (see, for instance, the narrow sides of Sale 7, lot 29); yet it is, strangely, more impressive. The artist understandably allowed it to carry the entire burden of the decoration. The result looks like a particularly impressive fireworks display, but is kept from getting out of hand by the frame and speckled borders.

The obvious fragility of this material makes it particularly difficult to find entirely perfect examples. Inspection of most lac-burgauté bottles reveals some damage, even if it is confined to a few missing inlays. A close examination of the surface here reveals a puzzling anomaly. There are many minute scratches across the gold and silver foil inlays, suggesting that the bottle has been handled a good deal, and yet it remains in extraordinary condition.

Also, it is obvious under high magnification that the black lacquer ground is minutely crizzled, which is typical of lacquer of any age, but is unusual for the Japanese lac-burgauté group of bottles. If we take lacquered qin (the zither-like string instrument beloved of the literati) as a guide, typically the smooth surface of ancient lacquer will first break down into roughly parallel lines of fine cracks. With the passage of further time, cracks will then develop to join the horizontal crackling, creating an approximation of a honeycomb effect. Finally, the empty spaces in the ‘honeycomb’ will be filled with a tiny network of smaller crackling; a very early instrument will characteristically exhibit all three stages of crackling and resemble a randomly built dragon-fly’s wing. The present bottle may have stood for many years in a cabinet in the West, possibly with lights being switched on and off regularly in the cabinet, creating rapid changes in temperature. Those are not ideal conditioned for organic wares and often result in accelerated ageing.

Another, almost identical bottle, also with its original stopper, is in Lawrence 1996, no. 15 (previously Christie’s, New York, 29 November 1990, lot 133), and another, of different shape but obviously by the same hand, and with an identical original stopper, is in Hamilton 1977, p. 18, no. O-96, where the other three bottles on the same plate are all Japanese lac-burgauté bottles. For three Japanese examples in various styles, see Perry 1960, p. 120, nos. 120–122, where no. 123 is a Chinese version from the late Qing dynasty from the Gerry P. Mack Collection.


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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