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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 32 

Lot 32

   

Lot 32
Treasury 7, no. 1587

Realm of the Gods

Transparent and translucent variegated golden-brown, and opaque variegated yellow-ochre amber (of the variety known as ‘root amber’); reasonably well hollowed, with a very slightly concave lip with a thin outer-lip rim and a recessed flat foot surrounded by a protruding concave footrim; carved with a continuous scene of formalized clouds floating above a ground of formalized waves in which, on one main side, Xiwangmu, the Queen Mother of the West, rides in a small two wheeled cart, holding up an elaborate woven basket containing two large peaches of immortality, with a hoe for gathering lingzhi wedged between her body and the side of the cart, two female deities as attendants standing, one behind the chair of the cart, with one hand hidden by her sleeve on the back of the chair, presumably pushing it, and the other holding a fly whisk, while behind her, high on one narrow side, the God of Longevity, Shou Lao, rides on a flying crane holding his walking staff, as on the other main side the Hehe hold covered boxes from which emerge, initially as a stream of vapour, the clouds in which the entire scene is set, while above them Liu Hai floats on a lotus leaf, his string of cash around his shoulders, gazing up at his three-legged toad floating in the clouds above him, the other narrow side decorated with a naked youth seemingly floating above the waves and holding a lotus flower
The Amber Figure Master, 1760–1880
Height: 7.71 cm
Mouth/lip: 0.53/2.42 cm
Stopper: jadeite; silver collar

Lot 32 Provenance:
Hugh Moss
Paula J. Hallett
Sotheby Parke Bernet, New York, 2 December 1985, lot 70
Hugh Moss (HK) Ltd (1985)

Published:
HKMA 1978, no. 142
Kleiner 1987, no. 204
Treasury 7, no. 1587

Exhibited:
Hong Kong Museum of Art, October–December 1978
Sydney L. Moss Ltd, London, October 1987
Creditanstalt, Vienna, May–June 1993

Lot 32 Commentary
The Amber Figure Master is discussed under Sale 1, lot 123 (and Treasury 7, no. 1586). This is another of his great masterpieces and, in common with several of his other works, is of relatively large size. He clearly relished having a broad canvas for his art, and in every case (as with large so-called black-and-white Suzhou carvings of the Zhiting school) any prevailing prejudice against larger snuff bottles is instantly overcome by the sheer majesty of the workmanship and dazzling use of the material.

The subject matter here is primarily Daoist, intended to convey a number of auspicious wishes. Longevity is implicit in depictions of the realm of the gods in any case, but made specific and obvious by the God of Longevity and the Peaches of Immortality that grow in the garden of Xiwangmu. Commercial success is invoked by the image of Liu Hai and his three-legged toad, since he is the patron deity of commercial ventures. Even the toad (chan) is a pun intended to evoke the idea of plentiful money (qian). Harmony is represented by the Hehe, two youths with shifting iconography and uncertain origins, but immensely popular because they represent not only peace and harmony in general but marital harmony as well. There is a pun on their name in the two boxes (he) from which the clouds originate, strengthening the mystical origin of the entire scene. The naked boy (nanhaizi) paired with Liu Hai also augments this concept, since he holds a lotus plant (he) which under its alternative name (lian) supplies a visual pun for the term lianzi (continuous progeny). Finally, the clouds (yun) represent good fortune (yun).

We have few clues to the dating of the Amber Figure Master’s works. It is tempting to equate the sheer quality of carving and their obviously functional hollowing throughout as indicating an early date, perhaps from the second half of the eighteenth century, but this simplistic equation of quality with age is no longer tenable in the snuff bottle world. Many types of bottle maintained high quality and functionality into the early decades of the twentieth century, even into the post-1949 era, although these are usually stylistically easier to identify as later products. One possible clue lies in several large amber bottles that, if not core works of the Amber Figure Master school, are closely related: they have very elaborate, oversized, heavily carved stoppers that would be difficult to reconcile with eighteenth-century usage and suggest a concession to a collector’s market. The most likely date, then, is perhaps the period from the late eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth century, but we have left a little leeway in our dating in case they may be from the second half of the nineteenth century.

 

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