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There's snuff choice to please everyone; Small enough to fit in the hand but big on style, these Chinese bottles are a collector's dream.

The history of Chinese arts and crafts is a long one. During the Neolithic period for example - it stretched from the tenth to the second millennium BC - China's artist potters were making pottery incised or painted with stylish geometric and linear designs that, for the time, show an amazing level of invention. In contrast, our cavemen were chasing their next meal.

By the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) the potters were producing remarkable earthenware, notably the impressive models of camels and horses placed in the tombs of the departed and with the Song Dynasty (960-1279) came the age of classic Chinese ceramics.

The secret of producing translucent, resonant and thin-bodied true porcelain had already been cracked and literally thousands of kiln sites across China were in full production.

By the time of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) extravagant and sophisticated porcelain, notably the cobalt blue and white ware so popular during the era, was being exported around the world.

Glass ingots were being imported to China from the Near East by the middle of the first millennium BC to be made into beads and other jewellery, as substitutes for rare precious and semi-precious stones - notably jade.

During the Ming Dynasty, glass bottles, vases and bowls were made from layers of coloured glass, which was carved to produce cameo-like decoration.

However, it was not until the late 17th century that the first imperial glass workshops were established in Beijing. It served the court of Kangxi (1654-1722) the fourth emperor of the Qing Dynasty.

By then, the humble snuff bottle had become one of the most popular products.

Portuguese traders had already introduced tobacco to the country, but smoking was declared illegal during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912 ) although taking powdered tobacco in the form of snuff was permitted because it was thought to cure common illnesses.

The upper classes quickly adopted the habit and, when techniques were mastered for cutting and modelling jade and hardstones such as agate, quartz, cornelian and amethyst, decorative snuff bottles, sized to sit in the palm of the hand and sumptuous enough to impress in social circles, became de rigeur.

Decoration was as varied as the boundless imagination of the craftsmen who fashioned them. Motifs included mythological scenes and symbolic creatures, immortals, women, landscapes, birds, fish and flowers. Agate snuff bottles examples are among the most delightful - and valuable. Their beauty lies partly in the colour of the stone, which varies from light blue to black.

One way to date an agate bottle is to examine the hole drilled into it to hold the snuff. If it is narrow and leads to a well-hollowed internal chamber, usually extending to the shoulders of the bottle, it's early. If, on the other hand, it's wide, straight and crudely carved, it's late. The acid test is to see whether or not the bottle will float in water.

Among the best are those bearing enamels applied by Cantonese craftsmen. Rather than being blown like other early glass, snuff bottles were fashioned from solid blocks of glass, shaped and hollowed by hours of cutting and grinding.

Others were carved to remove one layer of coloured glass to reveal another colour beneath, producing a cameo effect. They were made by extremely skilled craftsmen and are highly desirable to collectors.

Another speciality, particularly of the Beijing workshops, features the art of inside or back-painting in which the interior of the transparent bottle is painted with enamels from the outside. They are a tour de force.

They are still being made today in Beijing and we were lucky enough to watch them being painted when I visited the country.Naturally enough, impressed tourists like us are snapping up these miniature works of art and they continue to flood into the West.

Today's collectors looking for antique internal decorated glass snuff bottles need to be wary. The uncertain should buy only from sources where the product is guaranteed.

As for prices, it is possible to pay well into four figures for good or rare examples. However, simpler ones can be found around the PS100 - PS150 mark.

Above all, watch out for modern fakes. Glass snuff bottles are among the most common, but beware of possible attempts to imitate agate in all its different colours.


Rare cloisonne enamel sne bottle with a moon flask body decorated with shou medallions, the symbol for longevity. It sold for PS2,100 ALL PHOTOS: Peter Wilson auctioneers

HEART-shaped porcelain snuff bottle painted ONone face with figures on a bridge in a landscape, and a lakeside view on the other. It sold for PS1,700

White jade snuffbottle carved with shou longevity symbols and taotie (ogre) handles. It sold for PS650

Macaroni agate snuffbottle with red coral cap. Saleroom estimate PS600-PS700

A white glass snuff bottle overlaid with brown glass carved to depict a bird in a tree on one face and a basket of flowers on the other. The seal mark dates it to 1836. Saleroom estimate PS1,000-PS1,200
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Publication:Daily Post (Conwy, Wales)
Date:Jul 25, 2015
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