Snuff was discovered at the end of the 15th century by Christopher Columbus and his fellow adventurers as they roamed the western side of the Atlantic. But snuff took a while to take off in China. The earliest recorded date on a Chinese snuff bottle is 1644 but they would really take off in the 18th century..While 17th-century Europeans stored their powdered tobacoo in boxes, the humidity in much of China (and the lack of pockets in Chinese garments) necessitated a handheld, airtight repository — and thus the snuff bottle was born.
These tiny vessels were the focus of “Small Delights: Chinese Snuff Bottles,” a yearlong show at The Metropolitan Museum of Art earlier this year. Some of the most sought-after examples exhibited came from the imperial workshops of the Qianlong emperor, a noted patron of the arts.
They were never particularly valued. Indeed. upon meeting a friend or acquaintance in the street it was customary to extend one’s arm (your supply of stuff being secreted in the sleeve) and snuff bottles and contents were duly exchanged.
However, that appears to be changing significantly. Three or four years ago it was relatively easy to pick up interesting Chinese snuff bottles for around £50, sometimes even less. If you hoped to ride a snuff bottle bottle boom, there can be little doubt you are too late.
Several provincial sales this autumn have highlighted the increasing value of Chinese snuff bottles. Two we have been at – Woolley & Wallis in November and Lyon & Turnbull earlier this month – evidenced vastly increased prices for these alluring small objects. To a certain extent, provenance at both auctions played a part although Mary Stewart, the romantic novelist whose collection was dispersed at L&T, was hardly renowned before her death at a world-class Chinese collector. However, she did have good dealers lurking in the background. At the Woolley & Wallis sale some snuff bottle lots got up to 20 times their estimates.
A sale last week online, however, underlines what might confidently be termed an emergent trend. Even more sensational results were achieved by Berlin-based Auctionata.
With intense bidding for every single item, ‘Exceptional Snuff Bottles from a Spanish Collection’ was Auctionata’s first auction to sell out entirely, leading to an impressive overall result of € 161,652 (incl. buyer’s premium).
The auction presented 64 snuff bottles from a private collection in Spain. The small, yet artfully crafted vessels attracted bidders with their impressive diversity of designs and precious materials such as agate, jade, overlay glass and porcelain.
For nearly four hours, Auctioneer Philipp von Hutten and Auctionata’s Senior Specialist for Asian Art, Dr. Arne Sildatke, presented the small but fine artworks to 498 users from 28 different countries. Throughout the auction, bidders from China, Thailand, United Kingdom, Belgium, Switzerland and Germany engaged in heated bidding contests which resulted in hammer prices that surpassed the estimates by far. The most sought after object of the night was a shadow agate snuff bottle with a bird motif and a dark-brown and black grain and a stopper of gilt brass with filigree decoration and round turquoises from the Qing dynasty, which ultimately sold for € 15,600. Another highlight was a shadow agate snuff bottle with telief handles from Qing Dynasty in light brown with a dark brown to black veining which sold for € 11,400 (all prices including buyer’s premium).
The reasoning behind the increased demand for these small but usually perfectly formed objects is hardly difficult to divine. They represent eminently portable wealth. And there is, of course, a pent up demand for wealth which might be transferred across certain national borders without tiresome duties and taxes, and retained as an apparently unostentatious way of investing ones wealth.
Shadow Agate Snuff Bottle with Birds, Qing Dynasty
Agate, light brown with a dark brown to black veining. Stopper of gilt brass with filigree decoration and round turqouises and bone spoon. Height: 7 cm.
Sold for € 15,600 (incl. buyer’s premium)