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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 13 

Lot 13

Lot 13
Treasury 2, no. 336

The Belfort Imperial Eight-Reale Crystal

Flawless crystal; very well hollowed with a concave lip and recessed foot surrounded by a protruding, flat footrim; carved with the obverse and reverse of a Mexican eight-reale coin, complete with its milled edge, bearing the head of Charles IV of Spain encircled by the legend CAROLUS•IIII•DEI•GRATIA•1798, the reverse with the Spanish coat of arms encircled with the legend HISPAN•ETIND•REX•M•8R•F•M• the narrow sides with mask-and-ring handles
Probably imperial, attributed to the palace workshops, 1798–1840
Height: 5.4 cm
Mouth/lip: 0.63/1.62 cm
Stopper: jadeite; silver collar

Lot 13 Provenance:
Hugh Moss
Belfort Collection (1986)

Published:
Moss 1971, p. 77, no. 202
Snuff Bottles of the Ch’ing Dynasty, p. 106, no. 180
Jutheau 1980, p. 111, figs. 5 and 6
Kleiner 1987, no. 135
Kleine Schätze aus China, p. 7
Treasury 2, no. 336

Exhibited:
Hong Kong Museum of Art, October–December 1978
L’Arcade Chaumet, Paris, June 1982
Sydney L. Moss Ltd, London, October 1987
Creditanstalt, Vienna, May–June 1993

Lot 13 Commentary
This is one of the finest and most extraordinary crystal coin bottles for a number of reasons. The material is flawless, which is very rare for the group, and the coin very accurately copied. Quite often the details of these coins were simplified or modified, and many are illegible pastiches of the original coin with meaningless squiggles replacing inscriptions and dates. A few are known that are mirror images, implying that the work was taken from an impression of the coin and not from the coin itself. Finally, the shape is unique for the group: the two faces of the coin have been superimposed as panels on a bottle of standard snuff-bottle shape, complete with a protruding footrim and the ubiquitous northern-style mask-and-ring handles.

The unique nature of this particular bottle raises the question of where it was made and why it is so different. The answer seems to be that all it has in common with the rest of the coin-bottle group is its subject matter, allowing the possibility that it was made in a different workshop. If the majority were made in a provincial workshop, perhaps in the Guangzhou area, the main trading port for foreigners during the time of their manufacture, what of this exceptional bottle? For a number of reasons we believe it was probably made at an imperial facility and most likely at the palace workshops. After the military occupation in 1759 of the area that was later to become Xinjiang, large quantities of valuable hardstones were imported into China from the region. We may assume that this included crystal, which is part of the bounty of Xinjiang.

During the mid-Qing period, beginning apparently at some time during the second half of the eighteenth century, there was a sudden surge in the production of large and generally flawless crystal vases and other vessels made for the court. It seems reasonable to assume that the impetus for this was provided by the conquest and the enormous flow of raw materials that ensued. Crystal carvings of any size dating from before this large group are surprisingly rare, and flawless examples of any size still rarer. It may be that many of our flawless crystal bottles, often plain for obvious reasons, came from courtly production in the post-1760 period.

The form here also suggests a palace attribution. Remove the coin design, and it is a standard imperial shape with mask-and-ring handles and circular panels on either side, echoed in a variety of imperial arts from the eighteenth century, the panels derived from the circular ‘window’ designs on imperial enamels on metal, glass, and porcelain that evolved from the Kangxi to the end of the Qianlong period and remained a current decorative form for the rest of the Qing dynasty. The hollowing is quite unlike the standard for coin bottles but is typical of the finest of Beijing wares where they have set out to achieve extensive hollowing. It also has the feature of a relatively deep foot area, also typical of the court and an unusual feature for a crystal bottle. The mask handles are precisely what we would expect to find from a courtly workshop. Nor is the subject an unlikely one for the court. Gold and silver Spanish coins minted in the New World were both well known at court and again would have been presented as curiosities. Several are to be found among the large number of small objects collected by successive emperors in individual curio boxes still in the imperial collection in the Palace Museum, Taipei. Such coins may have provided a palace carver with an original to copy, allowing an accurate version like this. If this were the case, then it would tie in with the equally rare glass example in the J & J Collection (Moss, Graham, and Tsang 1993, no. 385), which is similarly accurate. One further possibility is that it is imperial by way of having been made to present to the emperor.

With the imperial love of snuff bottles and the vast numbers that were sent to the court as tribute, it is possible that a local agent would have ordered a crystal coin bottle for the court, in which case it might well be of the finest crystal that could be found and adapted to court taste, with the addition of mask-and-ring handles, perhaps rarely found on the regular local output. We believe, however, that an imperial source is more likely and that it was simply made at the palace workshops accurately copying a coin that found its way into the imperial collection at some time after 1798. This being the case, it demonstrates yet again the continuing standards of excellence at these workshops at the time. It also demonstrates how wary we must be about equating age to quality. Without the date on the coin, there is no doubt that most experts would have attributed this bottle to the Qianlong period, which is obviously out of the question.

For a detailed explanation of the inscriptions and the designs, see Graham 1998.

 

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