Collecting: Don't be sniffy about Chinese snuff bottles

Prices are soaring for Oriental 'medicine' jars

Tobacco can be helpful, not harmful if you know your snuff. The price of good-quality Chinese snuff bottles has shot up in recent years thanks to the growing knowledge of collectors.

Tobacco can be helpful, not harmful if you know your snuff. The price of good-quality Chinese snuff bottles has shot up in recent years thanks to the growing knowledge of collectors.

"We publish scholarly articles each year and that has been responsible for the market rising," says John Ford, president of the International Chinese Snuff Bottle Society. "It has raised consciousness and people know much better what to look for."

In fact, the society itself has been adversely affected by these price rises. It now has fewer members than it did 20 years ago because so many collectors can't afford the bottles they want.

London dealer and society member Robert Kleiner agrees: "People are much better educated, so the good examples have gone up sharply in value while the mediocre ones have dropped enormously."

Mr Kleiner fell in love with Chinese snuff bottles 30 years ago after seeing them on a TV programme. He gave up his law career to find out more and to sell them. He is not unusual in reacting so strongly to these miniature masterpieces: many people are taken by their beauty, artistry and incredible detail.

The bottles were created after the Chinese began importing tobacco in the late 16th century. They considered smoking it to be harmful, but thought that taking it as snuff was actually medicinal - hence the production of snuff bottles rather than boxes or tins, as used in the West, because that was how medicines were carried about.

The 18th and 19th centuries, during the Qing dynasty, were the real glory days. The bottles were made in various materials beloved of Chinese craftsmen, including metals, glass, porcelain, semi-precious stones such as jade, and organic materials like coral, amber and ivory. Some are made of luminous glass or precious stones that look wonderful when lit from behind. Others require a magnifying glass to inspect the intricate carvings or paintings of hunting scenes. Most collectors want to have examples of every type of bottle, but some specialise in one material or style.

The fashion for taking snuff faded away early in the last century, but the bottles are still made, sometimes with great beauty and artistry.

"There are two or three recognised artists working in this field in China," says Mr Kleiner. "Works by these ones, if they're signed, go for around £800 to £2,000. There are a number of other good craftsmen around but they don't sign their work so they don't have such a high value. I deal in those that are 'inside painted' but not many other modern ones."

Sadly, but not surprisingly, there are also many modern fakes of old bottles.

"There are artists in Beijing who will look at the Sotheby's and Christie's catalogues and simply copy them," says Mr Ford. "You have to be discerning because many are very clever copies. It takes the eye of a connoisseur to pick them out."

He recommends that less experienced collectors restrict their purchases to recognised dealers, particularly members of the society, to be on the safe side.

Christie's and Sotheby's have regular sales in which "high end" items are auctioned. "Most of our bottles sell for £5,000 upwards," says Desmond Healey of Christie's. "And we find that they attract specialists who are looking for specific bottles to fill gaps in their collections. They don't have mass-market appeal, probably because of the price."

Snuff bottles are not too much affected by the vagaries of fashion. Generally, apart from the obvious issue of quality, enamel bottles fetch the highest prices while porcelain ones, largely because of the number that exist, are the lowest priced.

"You should expect to pay between £1,000 and £5,000 for a good-quality bottle," says Mr Kleiner. "For some reason, amber and rock-crystal bottles are surprisingly cheap at the moment. You can get a stunning rock-crystal one for under £1,000, which is about half the price it should be."

As an investment, the bottles are likely to hold or even increase their value, particularly the high-quality examples.

"The Chinese are beginning to recollect their art as they've become richer, and they will probably keep prices going up," says Mr Kleiner. "They're spending hundreds of thousands of pounds at a time, so it's looking pretty healthy."

The most paid for a single item, reckons Mr Ford, was the $600,000 (around £330,000) spent by a Taiwanese businessman on a jade bottle. So roll on the tiger economies.

NOSE FOR VALUE

Prices: from £200 to £200,000+ each.

More information: the International Chinese Snuff Bottle Society, www.snuffbottle.org; Robert Hall (dealer), www.snuffbottle.com; Robert Kleiner & Co (dealer), 020 7629 1814.

Auctions: 10 November - Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art, Sotheby's, London;

April 2005 - items from J&J Collection of Chinese snuff bottles, Christie's, London.

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