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photographer E-Yaji.

The Mary and George Bloch Collection: Part III  
Bonham's, Hong Kong, 25 May 2011: Lot 49 

Lot 49

Lot 49
Treasury 6, no. 1373

A blue and white porcelain ‘dragon’ snuff bottle

(‘Top Frog’)

Crackled colourless glaze on cobalt, and unglazed cobalt pigment on pale-beige porcelain; with a slightly convex lip and recessed, very slightly convex foot surrounded by a protruding, convex footrim; the foot of the spherical form moved up one side so the vessel sits with the axis through the mouth at a forty-five degree angle; a free-standing frog covered in oxidized cobalt perched at the summit of the bottle, which is painted under the glaze with two imperial five-clawed dragons set amidst clouds and flames; the lip painted with four bats facing inwards; the foot inscribed in underglaze-blue regular script, strangely off centre, Yongzheng nian zhi (‘Made during the Yongzheng period’); inner neck and interior glazed
Jingdezhen, 1820–1860
Height: 5.91 cm
Mouth/lip: 0.82/1.96 cm
Stopper: brown-stained bone, carved as a free-standing frog; stained walrus-ivory collar; original

Lot 49 Provenance:
Robert Hall (1997)

Treasury 6, no. 1373

Lot 49 Commentary
An identical bottle is in the Musée Guimet Collection, although its mark, if it has one, remains unrecorded (Musée Guimet 1991, p. 25; also in Cerutti 1993, p. 155, lower left). Another variation, not quite as bulbous and decorated with figures, was offered by Sotheby’s, Hong Kong, 3 May 1995, lot 635, where its apocryphal Yongzheng mark is noted. The main problem, of course, is how do we reconcile an imperial five-clawed dragon with an apocryphal mark on a bottle almost certainly made during the Daoguang period? It seems improbable that the court was ordering imperial bottles with fake marks on them, so there must be another reason why such wares have ended up in the imperial collection. It seems likely that such bottles were later acquisitions, since the imperial collection was not a static project. By the time the counterfeit bottles were added to the collection, they may have been mistakenly believed to be genuine articles that had strayed from imperial control. Use of the five-clawed dragon did not violate protocol, to the extent such things were controlled in the Daoguang period, because it graced a bottle that pretended to be a century or more old; imperial and private buyers alike would assume that it had originally been commissioned by the Yongzheng court. At present, it seems sensible to assume that on wrongly marked wares, neither imperial subjects nor imperial colours retained their original and authentic meaning.

The painting and quality of the blue here can be confidently dated to the Daoguang period, and the dragon is quite typical of others with Daoguang marks. The form is rare, and seems to reflect a growing need for novelty during the nineteenth century, which is another reason, if another is needed, not to even consider it as a possible Yongzheng product. The placement of the mouth on this bottle ensures that the vessel can be filled only about half way without spilling when opened, but perhaps it was easier to get a heaping spoonful of snuff when the bottle was pre-tipped, so to speak. It is an interesting experiment that does not seem to be derived from any other shape, unless the designer had a strange sense of humour: the only Chinese vessels that spring to mind as remotely similar were used by men as a portable urinal. However, those are more elongated than spherical.

The frog, a charming touch whose placement atop the sphere makes the form seem less accidental, is painted in uncovered cobalt that has oxidized, lacking a covering glaze to keep it blue. This is one of those rare occasions where we can be reasonably certain that the stopper is the original, despite being of an entirely different material. The example in the Musée Guimet has a very similar stopper, with a green frog on an ivory collar. It is a delightful idea to have the stopper as a second frog, allowing the two to stare at each other.

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