When Jesuit missionaries presented snuff to the Qing Imperial Court in the 17th century, it would have been impossible to imagine that a mere bottle created to house the zesty combination of tobacco, aromatics, spices, camphor and jasmine would one day achieve millions of dollars at auction.
After all, these were often just trinkets, tokens of thanks for services rendered. The Imperial Palace in Beijing had its own workshops, and the emperor would give a snuff bottle as a reward for a noteworthy accomplishment or to a departing senior official.
As time went on, the materials and techniques of the artistry became more valuable and complex, and each bottle soon took on the status of a miniature work of art. Smoking was banned at the imperial court and taking snuff as an alternative created a vogue for these exquisite vessels. Standing just 2-4in high, they were based on traditional Chinese medicine bottles and sealed with a cork to prevent humidity damage.
They quickly became a lavish accessory and at court, a beautiful snuff bottle became a status symbol, much as a fancy timepiece or fine jewellery is today. The workmanship incorporated the highest forms of art in jade, porcelain, bronze, ivory and glass, creating a microcosm of all the arts of China.
Just as Chinese art is rising in value in an international market, top-class bottles are appreciating rapidly. The highest price commanded for a bottle was HK$22 million at Bonhams HK. Clare Chu of LA-based Asian Art Studio spoke about the vibrant current market: “There’s interest from both Mainland Chinese and Western buyers, so bottle prices have more than tripled in 10 years.
And unlike big sculptures, they’re easy to carry and collect – even a Hong Kong apartment could house artworks worth millions in a TV-sized display case.” With today’s seemingly insatiable demand for Asian antiquities, it’s hardly surprising these little jewel-like bottles are passing the sniff test with style. For more details, visit here.
More stories like this are available in Quintessentially Asia.