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Wealth of art not to be sniffed at

The Business Times | Cheah Ui-Hoon | Tuesday, Apr 22, 2014

Ancient Chinese snuff bottles on display at Tianfu Tea Room.

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.

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