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Part III:
The Rising Importance
of the Collector

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The Marakovic Collection

Hugh Moss and Stuart Sargent

Part III: The Rising Importance of the Collector


At some time in the early nineteenth century, and noticeably in the Daoguang period, a new phenomenon began to arise. Snuff takers began to place a high value on earlier bottles.

It is perhaps surprising that it took so long for this to happen, but until sometime after 1800, while the snuff-bottle arts were still vital and evolving, there is no evidence that an early snuff bottle had any particular additional cachet over a fancy new one. Perhaps it was a question of fashion: with clothing, no-one wants second-hand clothes if they can buy new ones, but eventually, given enough time, finely made old garments begin to be collected and exhibited, and they take on a whole new life. The impulse would almost certainly have begun with snuff-users preferring an old bottle to show off to their friends, upstaging a guest perhaps with a genuine Yongzheng imperial enamel against his brand-new coral bottle, impressive though the coral might be. But snuff was challenged by the rise of water-pipe tobacco as the nineteenth century progressed, and both were shoved aside as cigarettes became a sign of modernity among the urban elites in the closing decades of the century. Snuff bottles began to lose their functional value and gain appreciation as antiques, objects of interest to collectors. Those who continued to make snuff bottles would have made them functional at first; even if they were new bottles being given a false reign mark and sold as antiques, they might be used to store snuff if one chose to.

The bottles in figures III.1, III.2, and III.3 represent this trend. The first is obviously from the same pottery as those signed by Maochun (see fig. II.33) and was probably made by him, yet it bears an apocryphal Yongzheng reign mark. If we date Maochun’s works to the late Jiaqing (perhaps into the early Daoguang), this offers us an early example of a fake reign mark in use.

Figures III.2 and III.3 are instructive. They are from nearly identical moulds, suggesting that even with apocryphally marked wares for a collectors’ market, the ceramicists were still in the habit of mass production. The two bottles, despite their Qianlong marks, probably date from the Daoguang era. It makes sense that Jiaqing potters would ignore the recent Qianlong era and reach back to the Yongzheng era for their fake marks (as in fig. III.1), whereas by the Daoguang there is ample evidence of the use of the Qianlong mark, as by then it was becoming a mark of greater merit among snuff-bottle collectors. In this case, the mark writer has made two mistakes with his mark: he has used a six-character reign mark, very rarely used on Qianlong-era moulded porcelains but sometimes found on early Daoguang ones in the same genre; and he has simplified the water radical on the character 清 Qing in a typically nineteenth-century manner. It is worth noting that similar bottles were made in the Jiaqing era; if the original Jiaqing moulds were no longer extant or were unusable when the Daoguang fakers wanted to fire a series of fake Qianlong bottles, the snuff bottles made from them would still have been readily available for copying.

The subject of the bottles in figures III.2 and III.3 is a famous episode in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms: the naval forces of the southern kingdom of Wu outfitted a fleet with hay bales and sent them sailing toward the forces of Cao Cao 曹操 in conditions of low visibility; thinking it was an attack, Cao Cao’s archers loosed tens of thousands of arrows against the boats, depleting their own supply and giving their enemies a huge store of usable arrows stuck in the hay. The bottle is also a visual example of a xiehou yu 歇後語, a two-part expression in which the first part is a hint to the second part; if the listener knows that particular xiehou yu, only the first part needs to be spoken in order to evoke the second part. (In English the question ‘Is the Pope a Catholic?’ works the same way—the answer is understood, and the question is actually a way of saying ‘yes!’. But there are thousands of xiehou yu in Chinese, and they often use puns and riddles.) In this case, the first part is cao chuan jie jian 草船借箭 (Hay-boats borrow arrows). The unspoken meaning, the second part, is manzai er gui 滿載而歸, ‘Coming home with a full load’, a common expression denoting great profits or success in one’s endeavours. The bottle, therefore, expresses a wish for someone’s success or congratulations on success achieved.

Another of the arts that flourished in the late Qing and into the Republican period was that of micro-incising, mainly on glass, porcelain, and ivory. With a bottle like the one in figure III.4, we could be looking at a fake Qianlong mark on the base, but it seems more likely that the engraver added the poem and monks to a Qianlong bottle, imperial in its colour and in its mask-and-ring handles. The cyclical date here probably equates to 1924. The carver of the design is here identified only by an assumed art name, Jingyi jushi 靜逸居士, but we know this to be one of the sobriquets of the painter and glass engraver Wu Mengling 吳夢齡. It is difficult to gauge Wu’s level of cultural sophistication: he might have been a scholar, but the rest of his output hints more at a professional artist. The poem, by Chang Hao 程顥 (1032–1085), reads as follows:

When I am at ease, there is nothing I cannot handle at my leisure.
So I awaken, and the sun is already red at the eastern window.
In quietude I view the ten thousand things and naturally grasp it all;
The fascinations of the four seasons I share with everyone else.
The Way reaches beyond all forms in heaven and earth;
Thoughts go with the shifting shapes of wind and clouds.
Rich and honoured, I am not corrupted; poor and lowly, I’m joyful—
Only if a man can attain this will he be a hero.

The second line contrasts the poet's life with the life of an official, who is up before dawn to report for duty at the palace. The third line is particularly famous and is frequently quoted as a sort of epigraph or as part of an essay title.

Faking for collectors comes in several phases. There was the initial phase, where bottles were produced as much for snuff-users as for collectors; everything was functional, and the only change was in the use of an apocryphal mark. This was probably the practice from the late Jiaqing into the second half of the century. Then there was the phase aimed solely at foreign collectors, which prompted the manufacture of the well-known ‘cabinet-bottle’ type, with high-flying relief and often rudimentary hollowing. They were for display, not use. Among these some were some hollowed and had less-high-flying carvings, many in fancy semi-precious stones, but all were aimed at foreigners – indeed there are even rumours of tourmaline from California being taken to China by collectors of snuff bottles and carved into bottles in the early twentieth century. This trend may have begun in the mid century but probably reached a peak in the decades before and after 1900. Fakers always respond to their market, and some of the collectors in the Republican period began to understand what they were doing, so the fakers classed up their act and started making more convincing copies of earlier types.

Cabinet bottles gave way to much more sophisticated fakes, some of which may have been so good they have slipped unsuspected into the body of genuine wares. But perhaps when a faker is so successful that he manages to fool all of the people all of the time, we might be justified in considering him an artist, too!

After 1949, and particularly from the 1950s onwards, there was a good deal of production under the umbrella of the Arts and Crafts Corporation, resulting in some very high-quality works. Most were of functional types, but not always. With renewed interested after the publication of Lilla Perry’s book in several printings through the 1960s, faking also took place in Hong Kong and Singapore. As collectors have become more and more knowledgeable, some fakers have kept up by producing ever more sophisticated wares. The most dangerous combination is when a knowledgeable dealer who knows exactly what he wants in the way of a fake teams up with a master carver or other craftsman who can produce it. A certain dealer worked closely with enameller Ye Bengqi in this manner, and this modus operandi has continued in the late twentieth century with certain Hong Kong dealers and more recently with mainland dealers. Some counterfeiters and dealers have also been involved in altering existing early bottles by either re-carving them or adding marks and inscriptions. Ye Bengqi, the third son of Ye Zhongsan, was one of the greatest fakers of enamels on glass of the Republican period. When interviewed by Hugh Moss in 1974, even he couldn’t tell in many cases which were his fakes and which were genuine! The bottle in figure III.5 is probably from his hand, although it is by no means a classic example of his work. But for two factors, it might have been taken as genuine. This type of two-character seal mark on enamelled glass seems to appear only on fakes by either Ye Bengqi or his best student, Wang Xisan 王習三 . Also, although Ye has tried to create the impression of a gold ground that has been worn off through use, a microscope reveals that the gold enamel is painted only around the details and was never a full gold ground. These fake Qianlong enamelled bottles continued under Ye Bengqi’s student Wang Xisan, and under the several students he taught. It is true that only a few of Wang’s own early bottles (made when he was supressing his extraordinary artistic talents) would fool the expert eye today, but one or two of his close copies from 1963 and very early 1964 still seem to confuse the artist himself, even to this day.

Our recent research has prompted us to re-assess a group of enamelled glass wares bearing iron-red marks in seal-script reading either 乾隆年製 Qianlong nian zhi (‘Made during the Qianlong period’ or 古月軒 Guyue xuan (‘Ancient Moon Pavilion’). We recently published our reasons for this and the new evidence on the present website ( The evidence is now compelling that the entire group was made not as distant orders for the court but for antiquarian snuff-takers, and perhaps collectors, in the nineteenth century, flourishing, along with Yangzhou glass-overlay bottles, in the mid to late century, with some of the finest made in the last two decades. We have, therefore, removed the several examples in this collection from Part I and introduced them here, in Part III, among those bottles influenced by the demands of collectors. We are not sure if the snuff-takers were simply showing an antiquarian preference for old bottles, or, in some cases, were not even snuff-takers but collectors with a similar preference. Nor do we know if a large group of wares all made in the same town over a few decades and all with apocryphal marks would have been expected to fool local snuff takers. It seems unlikely, even if the occasional local or foreign buyer might have been misled, that Yangzhou participants in a thriving snuff-culture would have been unaware of local products.

The group here is represent in the Marakovic collection by the bottles in figures III.6 - III.7 - III.9 - III.10 - III.11 - III.12 - III.13 - III.14 - III.15 -III.16 - III.17

Very few of these Yangzhou enamelled-glass snuff bottles are either unmarked or bear private marks of some kind; the vast majority are inscribed either with Qianlong reign marks or Guyue xuan marks, nearly always in iron-red seal script. They can be divided into two main groups, one we presume to be the earlier, with simpler designs and thicker enamels, can be shown to evolve into the presumed later, classic style which we can be certain flourished in the last two decades of the century, with the group probably declining rapidly, perhaps during the first decade or two of the twentieth century. When they began is another matter. We believe it would either have been in the Daoguang reign, when antiquarian interest prompted the manufacture of ware with Qianlong reign marks, or in the post-Taiping Rebellion renaissance of the badly destroyed Yangzhou, in which case not until the 1860s at the earliest.
One of the earliest of these first-phase Yangzhou bottles is shown in figure III.6. It follows the earlier Beijing design of lotus, which was so popular on mid-reign imperial enamelled glass wares, right down to the folded-over leaf, and it echoes the fashion for using an iron-red outline with pink filling for the flowers themselves. It also has thicker enamels than subsequent Yangzhou works and is somewhat less busy and detailed.

The bottles in figures III.7 and III.8, on the other hand, although ostensibly similar, are more typical of classic Yangzhou work. The garden scene of flowers, insects, and convoluted rocks is inspired by the Beijing style of the mid Qianlong reign, but the painting has become much more typical of Yangzhou in its detailing and its thinner enamels.

The classic Yangzhou style shown in figures III.9 - III.10 - III.11 - III.12 - III.13 - III.14 - III.15 - III.16- III.17 is a more painterly style achieved with thin enamels. The Beijing obsession with the thickness and brilliance of enamels of the mid Qianlong reign has been replaced by thin enamels used in a more painterly fashion. Subject matter and style become distinctively different, with landscapes, genre-scenes, and bird-and-flower subjects derived more obviously from the ink-painting tradition.Figure III.9 shows a bottle with a typical classic Yangzhou painting. The substitution of a standard white ground for the caramel-coloured ground of the bottle in figure III.17 represents classic Yangzhou style. Figure III.10 also shows an excellent example. Its decoration might have been taken straight off a hanging scroll by a contemporary southern painter; it is also an unusual one insofar as it is of double-gourd form – popular at court, of course, but not so common among Yangzhou output in general, whether in enamelled glass or carved glass.

The snuff bottles shown in figure III.10 - III.11 - III.12 - III.13 - III.14 - III.15 - III.16 are typical of the bird-and-flower decorations and figures-in-landscape scenes of the Yangzhou enamellers. A fisherman drifts in a Jiangnan landscape (fig. III.10); a crane carries a counting-stick or tally to an island palace fig. III.11; see below for the meaning of the scene); pheasants (one with improbably long legs) perch on an ornamental rock (fig. III.12); children play in the garden (fig. III.13); a scholar ventures out on a donkey while a fisherman discusses strategy with his son (fig. III.14); and ladies pose in a garden (fig. III.15). Even the popular Zhong Kui 鍾馗 the Demon Queller, in the company of his sister, is transformed into a scholar on an outing on a lake (fig. III.16). Gone is his donkey, forgotten her sedan chair; only his characteristic cap and beard and the presence of the demon attendant give him away. The game the scholars are playing on the other side of this bottle was played with tallies and related to success in the examinations. One name for it was Zhuangyuanchou 狀元籌(Principal Graduate Tallies); another was Qingyunti 青雲梯 (Ladder into the Blue Clouds, from a line in a well-known Li Bo poem). The game was first mentioned in literature in the late eighteenth century and became a common gambling game, with large sums won and lost on it.

A quite separate phase of snuff-bottle manufacture for collectors took place in Japan after 1858. By then, snuff-bottle collecting had already become a fad in the United States and Europe, and Japanese craftsmen and dealers quickly responded to this by producing a wide range of supposedly Chinese bottles. They soon began to realize that their distant patrons were mostly fairly ignorant, and it was just as easy to sell snuff bottles that were signed with Japanese names or made in Japanese style, as long as no one called them ‘Japanese’.

There might have been another factor, one that we have no way of documenting at this time. Japanese artists and architects have long taken inspiration from the arts of China, creating works that might have a Chinese theme treated in a Japanese manner (think large folding floor screens with ink paintings of famous Chinese poets). In some crafts, China represented the exotic (even the erotic, when Chinese women are depicted), but often artists were participating in what had long been one central project for the Japanese civilisation: to absorb the essentials of the great continental culture that always had such a deep influence on Japan—and to use these essentials as the basis for something even better. In other words, the makers of Japanese snuff bottles were doing something Japanese artists and craftsmen had been doing for centuries: creating a Japanese contribution to the civilisation of greater East Asia. The fact that foreign collectors would pay money for the results of their efforts (as long as they believed the art was Chinese) enabled the Japanese trading companies to make a profit, but the artists themselves were producing a new version of Chinese-art-within-Japan. Thus, they shifted naturally to a more distinctive series of wares that include many masterpieces of the snuff-bottle arts, especially in lacquer and ivory, as well as the embellished works by Tanzan 丹山, who produced some of the best-looking embellished snuff bottles in existence.

One master of Japanese ivory carving was fond of decorating his bottles with large numbers of figures in garden settings with complex galleries and terraces, which has recently earned him the name ‘Terrace Master’. Some of his works were coloured, and often they carried spurious Qianlong reign marks. His spectacular carvings are exemplified here in the unmarked example in figure III.18.

There is a touch of irony as we end our exploration of the Marakovic collection with this ivory Japanese bottle. With bottles made under the Qianlong emperor, a mark is an entirely positive factor, since it confirms its imperial nature and adds enormously to the ‘oomph’ of a bottle. On the other hand, with a group made in Japan for a collector’s market, as wonderful as many of them are as art, we prefer them without the mark, as that makes them a little more honest.