Chinese Snuff Bottles

Chinese Snuff Bottles

Imagine a world in which smoking tobacco is illegal: no cigarettes, no cigars, no pipes. For some, that may sound like a nightmare. For others, a relief, a sanctuary removed from the dangers of secondhand smoke. A world in which one can even sit outside of a Paris café on a sunny – perhaps even a slightly breezy – day without inhaling a mouthful of someone else’s cigarette.

Well, such a world existed once upon a time, in China. During the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), the smoking of tobacco was outlawed, and so, for many years in China, no one smoked. Instead, they snorted tobacco in powdered form – from tiny little spoons belonging to tiny little containers. “Snuff,” as powdered tobacco was called, was believed across the world at that point to have certain healing powers, to cure common illnesses like colds and headaches. For that reason, it was acceptable, and became quite fashionable, to carry around. Snuff had originated in the Americas and was commonly used in Europe by the 17th century. There, people carried it around in snuffboxes made of all kinds of materials depending on social class, from gold, silver and gemstone to papier-mâché. In Asia, however, a new art form was born of snuff: the snuff bottle.

Snuff bottles are usually around 2 – 2.5 inches tall, and around 1.75 inches wide. They come in every imaginable color and shape. The most sought-after, often, are those made in the “inside painted” technique, where paint is intricately applied to the inside surface of the glass bottle (see Lot 208 in the Sept 11 Asian Works of Art auction). This was done by fitting a paint brush through the neck of the snuff bottle – difficult to imagine when actually looking at the size of that opening. Also sought after are those most successfully carved out of natural materials. Lots 191 and 195 in the upcoming sale, for example, which come from a private collection, are carved out of amber. Lot 195, dating from the Qing Dynasty, is playfully carved into the shape of a gourd.

Ashley Hill of Doyle’s Asian Works of Art Department says that snuff bottles are her own favorite area of Asian Art. They are transportable, she says, and made with a wide array of materials. Just look at a Google image search of snuff bottles (or a Doyle website search), and you will see how amazingly different they all are – porcelain, jade, limestone, amber; with the richest symbolism embedded into each bottle, if you care to look up what each painted or carved image means. Not only that, says Ashley, but to top it off these works of art had function: people actually used these beautiful things in their daily lives (to carry snuff, I’ll remind you).

Diminutive and delightful, the snuff bottle would, without a doubt, have been a pleasure to transport about for snuffing purposes. If you have ever had the opportunity to see a snuff bottle collection in one place, you know that these colorful entities, which sit perfectly in the palm of your hand – carved almost perfectly to that shape – are designed to enchant and to calm: to reflect, it seems, the effects of the nicotine their snuff contained. “Take me to my happy place,” they seem to say – just hold one, someday, and you’ll see what I mean.

-- Olivia Andrews Dillingham


Asian Works of Art / Auction Sept 11, 2017

The Sept 11 auction offers two private collections of Chinese snuff bottles. We invite you to the exhibition on view Fri, Sept 8 through Mon, Sept 10.

View the Snuff Bottles to be offered