Vincent Fausone, Jr. discusses Chinese snuff bottles, especially focusing on their history and production. Based in San Francisco, California he is a member of the Bay Area Snuff Bottle Collectors and the International Chinese Snuff Bottle Society, whose website is a member of our Hall of Fame.
In 1978, I found a snuff bottle and didn’t know what it was. It intrigued me, so I bought it. Then I found some books about snuff bottles, and learned a bit about them and began looking for them. They’re all small; almost none are taller than 3 inches. And they’re made of all kinds of materials, from glass to jade, agate, precious stones such as tourmaline, even ruby matrix, amethyst, porcelain. They’re a microcosm of the craftsmanship of Chinese artisans.
Chinese snuff bottles were only made in the Qing Dynasty, which started in 1644 and ended in 1911, and contrary to what some people think, they were used only for holding powdered tobacco, usually with some herbs and spices in it, which was inhaled through the nose. They were never used for opium; that’s a totally different thing.
They actually started in the imperial court. For the first hundred years of their existence, pretty much throughout the 18th century, tobacco was exceedingly expensive in China, so taking snuff was a habit. It was definitely something for the upper crust of the imperial family and the influential minority of China. It wasn’t until the 19th century that you see a diffusion to the general population.
The other thing that’s fascinating about them is that almost all Chinese art tells a story or has a meaning. When we look at it, we just see whatever is there. You see a flower, a figure, a bat, and it doesn’t really mean anything to you, but those things mean a great deal among the Chinese.
The Chinese have a tonal language, so any particular sound may have three tones and mean three different things. You can make a pun. For instance bat – you say that word in one intonation, it means bat, but in another one it means blessings. So when you see a bat, it means may you be blessed by, and then whatever else is there – may you be blessed by old age, may you be blessed by wealth, et cetera. Five bats will represent the five virtues, which are health, wealth, long life, love of virtue and a natural death.
“Glass bottles were made under the direction of a Jesuit Bavarian priest named Kilian Stumpf.”
The snuff bottles were given back and forth, presented like cigarette cases of the 1920s. Many of them have wishes for passages of civil exams. China had an extremely difficult system of examination. The exams were open to everybody, although only people who had enough money to be able to spend 12 years of their life studying could possibly afford to do this. There were hundreds of thousands of young men who took the exams, but only about a thousand of them ever reached the level of passage of the full examination. It was a very competitive thing. Many of these bottles have a theme which essentially says to the recipient, we wish that you pass the examination.
They were also used for bribes. Because it was a small item, you could give it to somebody and it wasn’t traceable like money is or other things. They were never considered high art. On the other hand, they were very much appreciated for their personal cachet. To some extent, it’s like a man wearing a Rolex watch. He would bring out his bottle when he was with some other gentlemen – this was mostly, not completely, something that men did – and offer the others some snuff, which was also a way of saying, look at my wonderful bottle. It was something he took pride in.
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There are all these various elements that make snuff bottles fascinating, plus you don’t have to worry as much as you do with Chinese art, which goes back 5,000 years. This is a very short period – about 300 years when the snuff bottle was being used – and most collectors want the bottles that were really meant to hold snuff, not the later bottles created in the 19th century and into the 20th century, just for collectors.
They stopped using snuff in China about the 1920s; however, there were still artisans who continued to make them, primarily for the foreign collectors market. You may notice that there’s an enormous fake market going on now, selling reproductions as if they were 18th- or 19th-century bottles.
Collectors Weekly: Are there ways to tell the difference between the originals and fakes?
Fausone: The obvious fakes are not difficult to discern, but the really good ones can be difficult to identify. It’s one thing to make a reproduction and sell it as such and another thing to make a reproduction and sell it as a genuine article. A contemporary bottle made as a reproduction, which you can get sometimes at museum shops and so on, is not going to cost more than $50 to a couple hundred dollars. That same bottle, if it’s an authentic 18th-century glass bottle, probably has a price tag of $5,000 to $10,000.
The prices have escalated enormously, because this period was a finite period, so the number of authentic bottles that are still around dwindles as time goes on and as they store away into various collections. Since I started collecting, I would say the price of snuff bottles has risen between five and 10 times.
The most precious of these bottles are imperial bottles that were enameled on either metal or glass, a technique that was imparted to the Chinese craftsmen by the Jesuits at court, the court of Yongzheng and Qianlong, especially. Many of them have European themes and subjects on them because the designs were made by the Jesuits. Just recently, one of those bottles, which has a totally European subject on it, sold for $825,000.
The bottles that are enameled and of the Qianlong period or earlier always go for more than a hundred thousand dollars. Back in the 1980s, they were probably in the $50,000 range. It’s the exquisite workmanship, craftsmanship.
Enamel on glass especially was an extremely difficult technique to master, because the bottle was often carved out of a block of glass, not blown. Then it had to be enameled, and then you had to fire it, and if the fire got too hot, the thing would collapse. So it was technically very difficult to accomplish, especially because they had kilns that didn’t have temperature gauges. They had to eyeball whether it was too hot or hot enough or whatever.
All of the authentic Chinese snuff bottles are handmade. Occasionally you find ones that are made of porcelain, which were made in molds, but almost all of those were finished in one way or another by hand – hand-painted if there’s painting on them, or hand-carved. The Chinese actually re-invented a technique that’s known in the West as cameo glass. This was invented in the late 1600s, early 1700s in China where they took a glass bottle and then dipped it into another color or several colors sometimes, and you cause the outside color to make an image on the bottle. We call these overlay bottles.
This technique had been used by the Romans, but it had been lost in Europe for over a thousand years and was not reintroduced into European glassmaking until it was reinvented in China by Chinese artisans. Sometimes there’ll be two or three layers, and they carve a piece onto the bottle using each layer as a separate color range like a cameo effect.
Inside-painted snuff bottles first came about in the late 1800s and were made up until around 1920 or 1930. The first bottles were actually made to be used for snuff, but later they were made to be appreciated for what they were. They’re actually painted inside with a little brush that goes in and has a right angle so that the paint can go onto the surface. It’s watercolor paint, not oil paint, so you can’t put water in these.
The first inside painted bottles were made by literati and scholar officials. It was an amateur painters’ sort of thing. Then there were actual craftsmen who became very good at this. It’s one of the legitimate contemporary snuff bottle forms that’s still being carried on, because they were made to be collected, not really as containers. There are a number of top artists today who continue to make inside-painted snuff bottles, which, because of the artistry, garner a nice price tag.
I know some collectors who only collect contemporary inside-painted bottles. I know one who’s going to speak to us at our convention in Boston. He’s got a website that you can take a look at –SnuffBottleCollector.com – and he had a DVD showing how the bottles themselves are made. Part of it shows a bottle being made over a period of something like a week. From beginning to end, you watch this artist work on this bottle. It’s an enormously laborious task.
Collectors Weekly: Which snuff bottle materials are the most rare or valuable?
Fausone: There are more porcelain bottles than any other type of bottle, because when tobacco became affordable to the average person in China and this habit diffused to the general population, porcelain was the cheapest material to make. They could replicate a porcelain shape over and over again, so there was a profusion of porcelain bottles. Many of them toward the end were made to be thrown away. They were just made as containers for snuff, there’s not much artistic value in them at all. They were low end.
That’s not to say that there are not high-end porcelain bottles; porcelain bottles were made clear back in the 18th century right at the beginning of the snuff bottle craze among the elite, and there are some very fine porcelain bottles from that period and into the 19th century.
Glass bottles were made specifically under the direction of a Jesuit Bavarian priest by the name of Kilian Stumpf, who was made superintendent of the glass house that was established by the Emperor Kangxi in 1695. For that reason, glass was considered a very, very precious item. There is a history beyond that of Chinese glassmaking, but nothing like what happened in the 18th century when they really sat down to imitate and supersede the techniques of Western glassmakers.
Beijing gets very cold in the winter, and they found that the glass bottles, if used in the wintertime, would often shatter from the cold, so they began to make bottles out of stone. They would use their glass bottles in the summertime and then use their stone bottles in the wintertime. They developed the same kinds of techniques in jade, agate, pudding stones, fossil, limestone, all the stones. You name it; it’s been made into a snuff bottle.
My favorite type of bottle is what I call an imitation bottle. Starting very early in the evolution of snuff bottle making, the emperors Yongzheng and Qianlong were very fond of imitation. By this I mean a glass or porcelain bottle made to imitate precisely a natural material such as jade, agate, amethyst, or coral. They’re made so incredibly well that you really have to examine them to be sure what the material is. They were appreciated for the skill of the artisan in being able to essentially trompe l’oeil this material. I have a porcelain bottle imitating turquoise, and it looks more like a real turquoise piece than the turquoise bottles that I have next to it. That’s one of my particular passions, the imitation or trompe l’oeil-type snuff bottle.
Collectors Weekly: Where were these snuff bottles made?
Fausone: For the most part, snuff bottles were exclusively Chinese from the late 17th to the 19th centuries. They were also made in Japan, but never used in Japan. The bottles that were made in Japan were meant to be sold either to users in China or to collectors. Some very artistic bottles were made by the Japanese – carved ivory bottles, lacquer bottles – and I have a few of those. They also made snuff bottles in Thailand. Almost all of those are made of metal. There are metal bottles in China as well, but it was not one of the top materials.
The Chinese snuff habit was a northern habit, because the Qing Dynasty was made of Manchus from Manchuria. They were not indigenous Chinese, and they had already developed the habit of taking tobacco before they conquered China, so there are still places where they took snuff, Mongolia being one of them and Manchuria. There are some bottles made in Nepal. But again, they’re usually made of metal, often of coins which are fashioned in such a way to make a small snuff container.
There were some bottles made of glass in Bavaria. In fact, snuff bottles were made of glass in Bavaria before they were made in China, but they’re totally different. They’re much larger – five or six inches tall. They’re heavier and bigger, and hold much more snuff. They don’t have spoons in them like the Chinese do. The Chinese bottles all have a little spoon attached at the top so that you can take the snuff out and put it on your thumbnail and sniff it.
With the exception of inside-painted bottles, collectors always like to see a spoon in the bottle. Traditionally, they were made out of ivory, but now they’re making them out of bone and you can’t really tell the difference. They can be made of all kinds of things – tortoise shell, metal. It was a utilitarian type of object actually, the spoon.
One of the reasons that they chose a bottle was because China has a very humid climate and the snuff would cake in a box because you couldn’t seal it tightly, whereas in a bottle, you can stopper it very tightly and keep moisture from getting in there.
The other reason for using a bottle is that there’s a long history of bottles being used for medicine in China, little bottles the same size as the snuff bottles. Initially tobacco was felt to be a medicine that would alleviate pulmonary problems, because when you sniff tobacco, you sneeze, and that allowed you to get rid of impurities. The third reason may have to do with Kilian Stumpf, because he was Bavarian and as I said, they’d already been making snuff bottles in Bavaria prior to the time when he took over the glassworks in China.
Snuffboxes were made in Europe before that. In the records we have, the first tobacco sent to Kangxi, who was the second emperor of the Qing Dynasty, was in snuffboxes. There are even a few Chinese snuffboxes, but it was never a really big item. The bottle above all was used for snuff.
Collectors Weekly: Do the same people collect both snuff bottles and snuff boxes?
Fausone: No. I have a couple of snuffboxes, but it’s a totally different field. Totally European. The materials used were much more sumptuous. Snuffboxes are often made of gold or silver, inlaid with jewels and gems, diamonds, precious stones, and so forth, and that’s a totally different thing than the Chinese snuff bottles. Rarely do you see any kind of precious stone inlay. That just wasn’t part of the Chinese taste.
Snuff boxes range from 2 to 3 inches and they used to have a lid. They’re maybe an inch deep. They were also handmade. They were made by the best craftsmen in Europe and also diffused to the general public, so you get less expensive boxes as you go down the line. Initially it started because all tobacco came from the New World, and was very expensive when first introduced, because it was imported. There was no source of tobacco outside of the New World until tobacco began being grown in China, the Philippines, and various places in Europe. It was an extremely expensive commodity, so only the very wealthy that could afford it.
Collectors Weekly: Would you say that antique snuff bottles are mostly about the art?
Fausone: Yes, that’s why we collect them. I don’t think any of us have ever snuffed. I tried it once just to see what it was like. We don’t smoke either. The bottles were made to contain tobacco, but essentially it’s the artistry, the craftsmanship, and the beauty which attracts us.
We have 500 members in our International Chinese Snuff Bottle Society, from 45 nations. That doesn’t include all snuff bottle collectors, because some people who just don’t want to belong to an organization. There are lots of collectors in England, in France, in Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, some collectors in Italy, collectors in Australia, collectors in some South American countries, Brazil, Argentina, Canada, Spain – essentially all over the world. We’re going to have 110 people at our convention in Boston this year.
Collectors Weekly: What usually happens at the convention?
Fausone: It’s fun and enlightening. For instance, we have an exhibition of one of our top collectors, Carl Barron, who’s got one of the largest collections in the world. I think he’s got 5,000 to 6,000 bottles, and he’s going to have an exhibition of 200 of his bottles we’re going to look at. We’re going to see the collection bottles at the Peabody Essex Museum, which is the oldest collection in any museum, and then we’re going to see the collection at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, which is the second oldest museum collection.
There are 11 bottles at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum that Mrs. Gardner bought in 1883 on a trip to Beijing and we will see those. We will have lectures by a number of authorities. Professor Robert Mowry from Harvard is going to give us a lecture on enamel-painted porcelain bottles.
Our convention is a different place every year. Last year it was in Toronto. The year before that, it was in San Francisco, and the year before that, it was in Hong Kong. Next year it will be in Dublin, Ireland, and the year after that in Hawaii. So we go all over. Whenever we’re going to have a convention, we think about what collections are there for us to see. In both of these museums, Peabody Essex and the Museum of Fine Arts, their bottles are not on display all the time, they’re just going to put them on display for us, but at the Isabella Stewart Gardner, the 11 bottles are always there.
Collectors Weekly: Where do you find snuff bottles for your collection?
Fausone: There are a number of dealers, and you don’t have to find them – they’ll find you. For instance, at this convention, we have 16 dealers who will be selling bottles. Secondly, there are auctions. Here in San Francisco, Bonhams & Butterfields almost always has snuff bottles in its Asian auction. So that’s pretty much where you get them: auctions and dealers.
The problem with eBay is that you never know what you’re getting. You don’t know the authenticity of things. Unless I were dealing with a dealer whom I had great faith in and who would assess a bottle, I need to see it and I need to hold it. I need to look at it. I need to examine it. You can’t tell whether it’s got a chip, crack, condition problems, plus you don’t know whether it’s genuine or whether it was made yesterday. You can only do that by evaluating the bottle yourself.
Collectors Weekly: If somebody wanted to start collecting Chinese snuff bottles, what advice would you have for them?
Fausone: Look at a lot of bottles before you start buying. There’s a wonderful collection, the Pritchard Collection, at the Oakland Museum of California in Oakland. It’s well worth spending a lot of time in front of it. There’s another collection in the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. A couple of my bottles are there that I donated to the museum.
The one book that any new collector should get a hold of is Bob Stevens’ snuff bottle book, The Collector’s Book of Snuff Bottles. It’s in the second printing now. The other book is Lilla Perry’s book, which is called Chinese Snuff Bottles: The Adventures and Studies of a Collector.
The other thing is to get in touch with collectors and ask them about dealers who are honest and who you can trust, because you can get stung very easily, especially now since bottles are more expensive than they used to be. You can’t really find a bottle anymore for a couple hundred dollars. If you’re spending that money, unless you really know that you’re getting a deal and you know more than the dealer does, which is very rare, you’re being ripped off. If you’re going to be a serious collector, you’ve got to shell out at least a thousand dollars or $1,500 for anything that’s going to be of value, but before you do that, you want to be sure what you’re shelling out for.
And you’ve got to figure out what you personally value. I’m not attracted to these bottles that are going for $500,000 to $800,000. They’re beautiful bottles, but their subjects are almost all totally European. There are some that aren’t, but I’m really not terribly interested in having an 18th-century portrait of a Western lady or man on the face of my snuff bottles. I’m much more interested in those bottles that have authentic Chinese designs and symbolism.
(All images in this article courtesy the International Chinese Snuff Bottle Society)