A white jade ‘Goldfish’ snuff bottle, Qing dynasty, 18th-early 19th century. Photo Sotheby's

well hollowed, carved in the form of a fan-tailed goldfish; the coral stopper with a turquoise finial; 7.1 cm., 2¾ in. Estimation 80,000 — 100,000. Lot vendu: 175,000 HKD

PROVENANCE: Robert Hall, 1984.

EXHIBITEDChinese Snuff Bottles in the Collection of Mary and George Bloch, The British Museum, London, 1995, cat. no. 90. Israel Museum, Jerusalem, 1997

LITTERATURE: Hugh Moss, Victor Graham and Ka Bo Tsang, A Treasury of Chinese Snuff Bottles: The Mary and George Bloch Collection, vol. 1, Hong Kong, 1996, no. 52.

A Passion for Collecting
The Mary and George Bloch Collection of Snuff Bottles

Mary and George Bloch began to focus their collecting activities on Chinese snuff bottles in the early-1980s and have since formed one of the finest private collections ever known.

George Bloch (born in Vienna, 12th October 1920, died in Hong Kong, 27th April 2009), the son of a prominent industrial family, was educated in England and moved to Shanghai in 1938. He stayed in Asia and eventually set up a successful company manufacturing and distributing toys, timepieces, housewares, and computer components. In 1969, George married Mary and they began to actively collect art together. With Mary, George’s interests grew far beyond the stamp collection he had amassed largely on his own, to include Japanese ivory and lacquer, Chinese ceramics and other works of art, and modern Western painting and sculpture. Their collection of twentieth-century Western art was one of the few formed in the Far East at the time and by far the most important in Hong Kong. From these various interests sprang a range of activities which took them to museums and auctions around the world, and saw Mary appointed to the Peggy Guggenheim Advisory Board in Venice, on which she has served ever since.

They turned to collecting snuff bottles in the early 1980s when considering the prospect of the return of Hong Kong to the PRC and felt it wise to focus on collecting something less bulky and more easily transported than modern paintings and sculpture. Throughout the years, they were advised by Robert Kleiner, Robert Hall and Hugh Moss.

The collection has been published extensively and exhibited widely, starting with a show at the galleries of Sydney L. Moss Ltd. (accompanied by the publication by Robert Kleiner, Chinese Snuff Bottles from the Collection of Mary and George Bloch, Hong Kong, 1987). The next major exhibition with a publication was at the Hong Kong Museum of Art in 1994 (Chinese Snuff Bottles. A Miniature Art from the Collection of Mary and George Bloch, Hong Kong Museum of Art, Hong Kong, 1994), quickly followed by one at the British Museum (Robert Kleiner, Chinese Snuff Bottles in the Collection of Mary and George Bloch, London, 1995). In 1995 there was also an exhibition at The National Museum of Singapore and two years later at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem (1997). The Bloch’s exceptional group of inside-painted snuff bottles were all exhibited in London in 1999 in conjunction with a convention of the International Chinese Snuff Bottle Society, and a smaller selection was included in the exhibition Passion of Collecting: The Oriental Ceramic Society of Hong Kong, 25th Anniversary Exhibition, University Museum and Art Gallery, The University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, 1999. The most recent exhibitions were both held in 2000, when several bottles accompanied an exhibition held first in the Palace Museum, Beijing, and published in The Imperial Packing Art of the Qing Dynasty, Beijing, 2000, and then in the Musée de la Miniature, Montelimar.

The collection also prompted an unprecedented published record of the collection, created by Hugh Moss,the late Victor Graham, and Ka Bo Tsang, in the monumental, seven-volume series A Treasury of Chinese Snuff Bottles: The Mary and George Bloch Collection. Hong Kong. vol. 1, Jade (1996); vol. 2, Quartz (1998); vol. 3, Stones Other than Jade and Quartz (1998); vol. 4, Inside Painted (2000); vol. 5, Glass, (2000);Vol. 6, Arts of the Fire (2008);Vol. 7, Organic, metal, mixed media, (2009). These seven volumes constitute an outstanding catalogue raisonné of 1,720 items in the collection.

Without her husband, Mary feels that the impulse to collect has come to an end and that it is time to allow others to enjoy the bottles the way she and George did. The collection will be dispersed through auctions in accordance with the long-term plans they had agreed long before George became ill. It is Sotheby’s privilege to be assisting with the sale of this legendary collection.

Two features distinguish this example from the majority of fish-shaped snuff bottles. First, the natural symmetry of the fish is subtly varied. The unsplit upper lobe of the caudal fin swirls slightly to the fish’s right, not only as a signal that the artist knows full well that a real fish has a vertical caudal fin and moves it from side to side, but also to add grace to the formal symmetry of the design. The pelvic and pectoral fins are symmetrical on the two sides, of course, but their shapes vary slightly. This may be seen readily in the pectoral fins that extend back from the fish’s gill slits: the fin on the fish’s left curls smartly upward, whereas the one on its right bends slightly toward the tail. The lower end of the pelvic fin on the fish’s left overlaps the pectoral fin, whereas on the right side there is separation between the fins at that point. These slight variations to formal symmetry are intriguing, and they are the sort of apparently minor details that can separate an artistic masterpiece from its less imaginative counterparts where less commitment and thoughtfulness have been exhibited.

The second rare feature is the mouth of the fish. As a rule on animal-form bottles, the mouth of the bottle is either drilled through existing detail or, if the mouth of the bottle coincides with that of the creature, naturalistic lips function as both. Here, the mouth of the fish is quite unnatural; what we have here is a regular snuff bottle mouth, a short cylinder with a flat lip and a cylindrical mouth. It works visually as the fish’s mouth despite its formality, however, and is a unique feature as far as we are aware on fish bottles. For more usual treatments of the mouth, see another bottle from the Bloch collection sold at Bonhams Hong Kong, 25th May 2011, lot 78 and lot 161 in this sale.

Sotheby's. Snuff Bottles from the Mary and George Bloch Collection: Part VI. Hong Kong | 27 mai 2013 www.sothebys.com