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Paul Braga snuff bottles. Photo: Bonhams

HONG KONG.- Bonhams, the leading international auction house for Chinese snuff bottles, announces the sale of the Paul Braga Collection of Snuff Bottles on 24 November 2012 at the Island Shangri-La Hotel.

The Paul Braga Collection provides a window into old Hong Kong, a bygone age when snuff bottles were displayed in baskets in antique shops and could be bought for several dollars each. Paul Braga was a true connoisseur in an era when little of substance was published on the subject, and the holdings from the former Imperial collection in Beijing and Taipei had yet to be published. Using his own eye and experience, he built up his collection and popularised the subject, collaborating with fellow collectors to organise the first exhibition of snuff bottles in the Hong Kong Museum of Art in 1977.

The Braga family had their roots in Macau, tracing back to 1708, when an ancestor was posted from Lisbon as Chief Justice. The twentieth century was a tumultuous period for them, with fortunes lost and regained. After the Japanese invaded Hong Kong, he escaped with his young family on an epic trek through southern China, eventually hitching a ride from Kunming to India with the ‘Flying Tigers’, the American Volunteer Group who established an air route for supplies to assist the Chinese resistance after the fall of the Burma Road.

The collection consists of 170 snuff bottles and is remarkable for the diversity of its material, with rare examples of semi-precious materials and obscure hardstones in addition to standard categories of jade, glass, porcelain and agate. The star lot of the collection is a famille-rose snuff bottle, produced at the Imperial kilns, Jingdezhen. Just 4.2cm high, it is brilliantly enamelled with lotus and chrysanthemum flowers, and bears a particularly rare four-character Qianlong seal mark only found on the highest quality porcelain snuff bottles commissioned by the Imperial court. The only other known example of this form and design, with identical reign mark, originally in the Qing Court Collection is still preserved in the Palace Museum, Beijing. It is estimated at HK$400,000-800,000 (US$50,000-100,000).

Highlights of the auction include: 

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Lot 33. A 'famille-rose' enamel on porcelain 'lotus and chrysanthemum' snuff bottle. Imperial kilns, Jingdezhen, Qianlong iron-red four-character seal mark and of the period. Photo Bonhams

Of compressed globular form with a short waisted neck, resting on a slightly concave oval foot, brilliantly enamelled with two lotus flowers on the central body and two chrysanthemum at the sides, surrounded by stylised floral scroll, set against a dense and vivid ground of tighter formalised floral scroll picked out in iron-red, all below a turquoise ruyi-shaped collar at the neck and above a band of lappets at the foot, the neck decorated with a stylised floral scroll in gold against an orange-beige ground, the base inscribed in iron-red with four-character mark within a square. 4.2cm high. Estimate: HK$300,000-500,000 

ExhibitedChinese Snuff Bottles, jointly presented by Hong Kong Chinese Snuff Bottle Collectors Study Group and the Urban Council, Hong Kong, Hong Kong Museum of Art, 15 October to 26 November 1977

Illustrated: Paul Braga, Hong Kong Chinese Snuff Bottle Collectors, Arts of Asia, November-December 1976, Vol.6, p.84
The International Chinese Snuff Bottle Society Journal, Vol.10, Number 2, JICSBS, June 1978, p.44, pl.91
Chinese Snuff Bottles, Hong Kong Museum of Art, Hong Kong, 1977, p.52, pl.91

The only published comparable example appears to be a very closely related snuff bottle from the Qing court collection, preserved in the Palace Museum, Beijing, illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum 47, Snuff Bottles, Hong Kong, 2003, p.195, pl.305 (fig.1). The Palace Museum example shares the same four-character reign mark inscribed in iron-red enamels, and is enamelled with identical decorative schemes, differing from the current lot only at the neck where the Palace Museum example is enamelled with stylised floral scrolls.

The distinct four-character Qianlong reign mark on this bottle is shared by two other bottles from the Mary and George Bloch collection, illustrated in Moss, Graham and Tsang A Treasury of Chinese Snuff Bottles: The Mary and George Bloch Collection, Vol.6, Arts of the Fire, Hong Kong, 2008, pp.335-342, nos.1150 and 1151. The latter is a 'double-gourd' snuff bottle that was sold in these rooms, 23 November 2010, lot 121, and illustrated on the cover. The authors present a compelling argument that these two snuff bottles were most likely produced under the supervision of Tang Ying in the early Qianlong period. This argument can be applied to the current lot, which is endowed with an enamelled design of similar exquisite quality, with a similarly meticulous floral design and floral ground.

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Lot24. A black and white double-overlay on turquoise ground glass 'Legend of the White Snake' snuff bottle, Qing dynasty, 1780-1820. Photo Bonhams

Of compressed globular shape supported on a ringed oval foot, intricately carved as a double overlay with a continuous landscape scene carved from the black and white overlays, featuring the tale of baishejuan, all against a brilliant turquoise ground and beneath downward leaf lappets at the neck. 6cm high - Estimate: HK$100,000 - 150,000 

ExhibitedChinese Snuff Bottles, jointly presented by Hong Kong Chinese Snuff Bottle Collectors Study Group and the Urban Council, Hong Kong, Hong Kong Museum of Art, 15 October to 26 November 1977

Illustrated: Bob Stevens, Snuff Bottles, New York, 1976, p.73, pl.230
Chinese Snuff Bottles, Hong Kong Museum of Art, Hong Kong, 1977, pp.27 & 123, pl.18

The scene depicted on the current snuff bottle is taken from the Legend of the White Snake, which was composed during or before the Southern Song dynasty. The story tells of a young literati Xu Xian, who falls in love with a thousand year old white snake spirit named Bai Suzhen. A monk named Fa Hai tries to stop the romance between a human and an immortal, forcing Bai to reveal her true identity in front of Xu, which scares him to death. Bai tries to save Xu by stealing the essence of vitality from the heavens to revive Xu. However ,upon revival he is caught by Fa and locked away at Jin Mountain. In anger, Bai besieges Jin Mountain and tries to rescue Fa by causing a great flood. The flood causes countless deaths which angers the high heavens, which punish Bai by imprisoning her in Leifeng pagoda. Before her imprisonment, Bai gives birth to their son, which in future will return to rescue Bai.

It is extremely challenging for the glass carver to carve a double-overlay snuff bottle of this form. It requires considerable plan and the design must be pre-determined in advance. The amount of time and preparatory work contribute to the rarity of double-overlay snuff bottles like the current lot, especially with such exquisite craftsmanship and the incorporation of such a wide variety of colours. 

For a closely related example of this rare group see Moss, Graham and Tsang, A Treasury of Chinese Snuff Bottles: The Mary and George Bloch Collection, Vol.5, Glass, Hong Kong, 1995, pp.680-681, no.1003, and sold in these rooms, 27 May 2012, lot 7. The authors refer to the current lot as being 'the only other of this particular and imposing colour combinatiom'. In their dicussions of no.1002, ibid, pp.677-678, another double-overlay glass snuff bottle in green, white and blue with a scene of Zhuge Jun in a pavilion, they argue that this group of bottles, all characterised by plantain-leaf borders round the neck, are clearly the work of the same production team. The fact that another closely related double-overlay bottle from the Barron Collection is inscribed 'a gift from the Inner (Palace) of the Qianlong Emperor' suggests that this entire group possibly dates from the late Qianlong period.

 

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Lot 1. A Baltic amber snuff bottle. Qing dynasty, 1740–1840. Photo Bonhams

Of flattened rectangular section, rising to a cylindrical neck from a wide oval foot, with organic inclusions in shades of russet and creamy caramel streaking across the body. 6.1cm high. Estimate: HK$20,000 - 30,000 

Illustrated: Paul Braga, Hong Kong Chinese Snuff Bottle Collectors, Arts of Asia, November-December 1976, Vol.6, No.6, p.85. 

Baltic amber belongs to the amber family, translucent in appearance and found around the Baltic region. It is characterised by its rich yellow tone, commonly referred to asjiyouhuang or 'chicken oil yellow', and is harvested from fossilised tree resin which has endured intense high pressure and heat underground for thousands of years. 

Such rare material was extremely valuable to the Qing court, where it was prized for its natural beauty. For a closely related amber snuff bottle in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, illustrated with its original lacquer box, see Snuff Bottles in the Collection of the National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1991, p.254, pl.378.

See also a related example in the Mary and George Bloch collection, illustrated by Moss, Graham and Tsang, A Treasury of Chinese Snuff Bottles: The Mary and George Bloch Collection, Vol.7, Hong Kong, 2009, pp.277-278, no.1574, and sold in these rooms, 25 May 2011, lot 71.

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Lot 11. An inside-painted glass 'crane and landscape' snuff bottle. Zhou Leyuan, dated 1892. Photo Bonhams

Of rectangular rounded form with gently sloping shoulders, painted on the inside with a continuous scene of a crane perching on rockwork under a plum blossom tree, the background with further bamboo growths. 6cm high. Estimate: HK$40,000 - 60,000 

Zhou Leyuan (active 1882-1893) liked to imitate the spirit of the great masters by combining them with his own painting style. His technique also bore the characteristics of the Five Dynasties Masters Dong Yuan (?-962) and Ju Ran (unknown) of drawing small stones on the summits of mountains, such as the painting of 'Xiao and Xiang Rivers' by Dong Yuan, which is preserved in the Palace Museum, Beijing.

One of the inscriptions can be paraphrased as "in the snowy weather, a crane will stay guarding the plum blossoms", which is in reference to the Northern Song poet Lin Bu (967-1028), who devoted his time to planting plums and raising cranes. 

The genre of "crane and landscape" was always painted towards the later period of Zhou Leyuan's life. Among all the existing Zhou's "crane and landscape" snuff bottles, a closely related example from the Humphrey K. F. Hui collection has the closest resemblance to the current lot in terms of the subject matter, poem and dating. See Inkplay in Microcosm: Inside-Painted Chinese Snuff Bottles, The Humphrey K. F. Hui Collection, Chinese University of Hong Kong, Art Museum, Hong Kong, 2002, pl.21.

Compare also a similar snuff bottle by Ye Zhongsan, illustrated in Moss, Graham & Tsang, A Treasure of Chinese Snuff Bottles: The Mary and George Bloch Collection, Vol.4, Inside-Painted, Hong Kong, 2000, pp.190-191, no.504.