Wealth of art not to be sniffed at

Once only used by emperors and nobles of the Chinese Imperial court, snuff bottles didn't really get due recognition in the Asian art market until the 1980s. They have finally been prized higher, by the Chinese themselves, as collectibles these days.

However, the measure of their value is really mainly only aesthetic, and based on the eye of the beholder, rather than on their antique qualities, says Victor Mun, a collector and former publisher of an art magazine, Dragon Roots, which went defunct in 1995.

Victor and his wife Irene started collecting snuff bottles themselves in the 1980s, sparked by interest among collectors in North America and Europe.

"Westerners were the first to appreciate the delicate art of the snuff bottles and were the biggest collectors from the 19th century onwards," he explains. Giving a brief history overview, Mr Mun explains how the art of the decorative snuff bottle had been started during the time of Emperor Kangxi (1654-1722) of the Qing dynasty, and had been contained within the Imperial court for several centuries, explains Mr Mun.

The emperor favoured them so much he had an exclusive workspace for the craftsmen in his palace grounds.

"Royal patronage was the only reason for decorative snuff bottles and they would use it as gifts to the lords and high-ranking officials within the Imperial court. It really wasn't something common or shared with the public."

Eventually though, as ageing artisans were sent back to their villages and hometowns, they would pass on the skills. "Guangdong, Shandong and Tianjing were such places especially as they supplied the materials for the bottles," Mr Mun says.

In the beginning of the 20th century and the start of the Republic of China movement, snuff bottles were then increasingly made available to the general Chinese market, and bought also by foreigners who travelled to China for trade.

"It is during this time when the art of making snuff bottles became more 'democratic', as it drew different artists, and the influx of newer technology also led to a whole variety of designs," he adds.

Today, there are a few thousand snuff bottles in the Imperial collection that remain as part of the museum collections in China, but a lot of Chinese snuff bottles are actually in Western collections, Mr Mun noted. In the 1980s, a British couple put on auction their collection of over 1,000 bottles, which was when the true value of the bottles as cultural, historical and art items were being realised.

Their miniature sizes belie Chinese culture, as well as China's trade and diplomatic ties with Europe back from the 17th century.

To get an idea of how late Asians have come into the scene, points out Mr Mun, the snuff bottle societies in China and Taiwan were formed only in the 1990s, and in Singapore, in 2001. "Before the 1980s, you weren't able to see snuff bottles in museums. China displayed them first, followed by Taiwan," he adds.

But as to how to appreciate them, Mr Mun and his wife note that it's really all about the aesthetics because it's difficult to ascertain the historical styles of the bottles.

There are some broad styles linked to the different dynasties in the snuff bottles' 400-year history, but most, if not all, styles can be replicated in modern technology.

"So even if there is a mark or word carved at the bottom of the bottle, it doesn't mean it's really from the era of Kangxi or Qianlong and so on," he stresses.

Collectors with a practised eye would, of course, be able to better appreciate fine drawings, or carefully done enamel paint on the bottles. In general, the finer drawings and mix of colours on the bottle would indicate higher prices.

"That's because it's really difficult to have different-coloured enamel paints on a small surface. The colours all have different melting points, and they have to be fired at just the right temperature after they're painted on," explains Madam Irene Wong, pointing out a slightly misshapened bottle that had melted slightly during a firing. "But we had still liked it because of the exquisite art."

Coloured glass bottles like the emperor yellow are more expensive than painted bottles. Jade and agate bottles are also more expensive than plain glass.

"The most inexpensive style would be the ones with reverse paintings - with paintings done inside the glass - because anyone could learn that skill and reproduce it today. Even so, there are different levels of the artist's skills," she explains.

The Muns are now clearing some of their collection, which they brought to Singapore at the invitation of Wee Wei Ling, the executive director of Asset Management at Pan Pacific Hotels Group and Parkroyal Group.

"It was too good a collection to keep to themselves so I asked them to share it," Ms Wee notes.

"We just loved collecting and we started buying snuff bottles wherever we travelled - in flea markets in London and Paris for example - for over 20 years," says Madam Wong. "Now that we're retired, we're finally taking stock of our different art collections and paring them down; and also to make space for other acquisitions as our tastes have also changed over time."

Over 250 snuff bottles are now on display at Tianfu Tea Room (Si Chuan Dou Hua), on Parkroyal on Beach Road, 7500 Beach Road, from now until April 27. The bottles are priced from $200 up to $30,000 each. For enquiries, please call 6505 5755

This article was published on April 18 in The Business Times.

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