Its happened. You have fallen in love with snuff bottles. You have seen a few in junk/antiques stores and you plunge right in and buy. But what have you bought ? Most likely, and I say this out of experience of weeding out collections, you have bought an 18th/19th Century example that is damaged and or bad (they made many bottles in the 19thCentury) or you have bought a bottle that may look good but it is NEW….. either late last century or even NEWER. There is nothing wrong with buying those bottles if that’s what you want to do but I would like to educate you in how to buy a good and old snuff bottle.
Look at as many old bottles as possible : visit museums and get to know a reputable dealer from the ICSBS, go to Auctions where you know that it is an old collection being sold and get your eyes in tune. Look out for the Provenance – did it come from an old collection ?
And look out for the following:
- In this category I include jade, quartz, agate and semi-precious stones. This group have survived the centuries because they are hard and not easy to damage. With a stone bottle you need to look at a few things:
- Is it well hollowed ? The amount of snuff that you can put in a bottle is important and so the better bottles are carved out from the inside to hold snuff the better the bottle. I use here two examples to show the hollowing.
- Are the markings attractive ? Stone bottles can have natural markings which an observant viewer can see as patterns. This is always a fun exercise, a bit like looking up at the clouds to see what image you might see. If the carver has used the markings to depict a scene it shows an artistic interpretation of the markings which can be amazing.
- Exterior carving Stone bottles can be left plain to show the beauty of the material or they can be carved. A well carved bottle is smooth finish behind the image, and then with rounded corners on the actual bottle design. Remember bottles are made to be held so you do not want to feel any sharp edges.
- As with stone bottles there are 18th and 19th Century examples which are lovely and those which are heavy crude or damaged. Check for damage as glass chips easily and such bottles should be avoided. Check the carving quality- on an overlay is the background smooth, is the carving rounded.
- Glass is perhaps the most difficult category to tell old from new. Nowadays, and since the 1970’s bottles have been made both as a tribute to and as an attempt to fake older glass bottles. It is tricky out there but these may be helpful hints.
- Get to know the 18th and 19th Century Chinese glass palette. If a colour is too bright or vibrant it is most likely modern.
- If the design is over complicated it is most likely modern. Bottles carved with wave design on the background seems to be a new technique and this type is to be avoided.
- Mostly the newer bottles are heavy. Although not necessarily, as some old bottles are weighted to imitate stones.
- Many porcelain bottles were made during the 19th Century when the Jingdezhen private kilns expanded production into snuff bottles. Porcelain snuff bottles were relatively easier to make than glass or hardstone or organic examples so there was a proliferation. Porcelain bottles are fragile and damage easily. Don’t bother buying a damaged bottle.
- In both enamelling and blue and white look for the finest painting- the detail- are the faces intact, are the dragon’s scales individually painted or merely cross hatched?
- Some types of porcelain bottles were made by putting porcelain into a mould to shape the bottle. It may have been that the mould was used up to eight times, so obviously the later batches were not as good as the crisper earlier batches. The carving should be as crisp and clear as possible.
- Porcelain bottles are more likely to have reign marks than other types. Check that the mark is crisp and cleanly done. Anything lopsided or overlarge is not good
I don’t wish to put you off buying bottles – but if you are unsure, ask an expert.