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photographer E-Yaji.
Snuff Bottles from the Mary and George Bloch Collection: Part II  
Bonham's, Hong Kong, 23 November 2010: Lot 33 

Lot 33

   

Lot 33
Treasury 3, no. 406

The Imperial Birthday Ruby

Ruby with silver; very well hollowed and carved in the form of a peach, the mouth lined with silver
Probably imperial, 1700–1900
Height: 3.58 cm
Mouth: 0.5 cm
Stopper: coral, a fragment of a pendant carved as a fish

Lot 33 Provenance:
Robert Hall (1987)

Published:
Hall 1987, no. 85
Kleiner 1995, no. 304
Treasury 3, no. 406

Exhibited:
British Museum, London, June–October 1995
Israel Museum, Jerusalem, July–November 1997

Lot 33 Commentary
A ruby of this size and depth of colour must have been a considerable rarity. There are so few early ruby bottles that this gem, which is more translucent than any of the others, is likely to have come to imperial attention. Add to that its peach form, the traditional birthday gift to such an extent that the emperor or empress must have been inundated with peaches in a variety of forms every year, and we have an ideal imperial bottle. There is no other indication that it is imperial, however, since it is quite plain and unmarked, as are the few other known early ruby bottles (see the discussion and citations under Sale 1, lot 13).

For a ruby, this bottle is unusually well hollowed and impeccably formed, with equally fine polishing. As Kleiner pointed out, the rather dynamic stopper is a fish diving into the top of the peach. It cannot have been the original and is quite inappropriate, but is sufficiently branch-like to get away with it. A more suitable stopper would be an emerald green jadeite twig, but in its absence an eccentric carp bungee-jumping into a giant peach will have to suffice.

If, as we assume, this is likely to have been a gift on an imperial birthday, the big question has to be for which emperor (or empress). Although we might prefer to associate it with the Qianlong emperor, there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever that it is more likely to have been made for him than for the Empress Dowager late in the Qing dynasty. It might even have been made for the Kangxi or Yongzheng emperors; we simply have nothing by which to judge it sensibly. Ruby was found in the Xinjiang region, but the more likely source is probably Burma; if we could be certain of its origin, we could offer hypotheses about its date. The fact is, however, it matters not a jot who it was made for or when. As Zhou Jixu wrote in his critique on the Yonglu xianjie (see Richard John Lynn’s translation in JICSBS, Summer 1995, p. 6):

Do not just talk about how far back in the past it dates from, for, although age is esteemed, we esteem more the close bond the owner forms with a bottle.

With an extraordinary bottle like this, that bond is strong. It is one of the most spectacular ruby bottles known, and as rare and magnificent, whether early eighteenth or late nineteenth century.

 

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