Probably Imperial, probably 1761 but possibly 1701 6.13cm high.
Treasury 3, no. 435
An inscribed coral 'phoenix' snuff bottle
('The Peggy Wise Imperial Coral')
Coral; very well hollowed, with a slightly irregular, oval mouth, flat lip, and recessed, flat foot surrounded by a protruding, flat footrim; carved around one main and the two narrow sides with a design of a fenghuang standing on a rocky outcrop in a garden scene with convoluted rocks, peonies, lingzhi, a wutong tree, a bat and the sun, inscribed with the character ri ('sun') and framed by formalized clouds, the other main side inscribed in relief draft script with a short rhyming encomium on the fenghuang, followed by the date 'Spring day [of the] xinsi [year]' and the seal Jishi ('auspicious stone') Probably imperial, probably 1761 but possibly 1701 Height: 6.13 cm Mouth/lip: 0.86 and 0.7 (oval)/2.05 and 1.85 cm (oval) Stopper: jadeite; carnelian collar
Condition: There is a minute 0.1cm chip to the exterior of the mouth; a shallow 0.2cm flake to the foot. As visible in the photos, there are natural flaws to the coral, along which there is some flaking and infilling. A small section has possibly broken off and been refixed.
Provenance: Janek Kahn Sotheby's, London, 21 and 22 June, 1965, lot 232 Hugh M. Moss Ltd. (1965) Kurt Graf Blucher von Wahlstatt (Count Blucher) Hugh M. Moss Ltd. Margaret Prescott Wise (1970) Edgar and Roberta Wise Robert Kleiner (1995)
Published: Sotheby & Co. 1965, p. 176 Moss 1971a, no. 162/3 JICSBS, December 1976, p. 40, top JICSBS, March 1977, front cover Snuff Bottles of the Ch'ing Dynasty, no. 122 Sin, Hui, and Kwong 1996, no. 275 Treasury 3, no. 435
Exhibited: Hong Kong Museum of Art, OctoberDecember 1978 Los Angeles County Museum, October 1984 The Tsui Museum of Art, Hong Kong, October 1996
Lot 64 Commentary This extraordinary early masterpiece is unquestionably the most important coral bottle known, and among the most famous and sought after. It is unique on a number of fronts. It is one of only two known early inscribed bottles (the other was also in this collection, Sale 2, lot 19) that bear signatures, although in this case the signature is more likely to be a reference to the stone rather than the carver. It is by far the best hollowed of any coral bottle and the only one that, judged by the standards of agate or jade, would still be considered well hollowed. It is also our only precisely dated coral bottle and the earliest regardless of whether we read the cyclical date as corresponding to 1701 or 1761. Only two other published coral bottles bear credible dates (Chang Lin-sheng 1991, nos. 405 and 406). They bear Qianlong reign-marks, however, which do not date the bottle precisely within the reign period. Indeed, this bottle would still qualify as our earliest precisely dated bottle even if one reads the cyclical date as 1821 or even 1881, although the last date is impossible and the early nineteenth century one almost inconceivable. As if all that were not enough, it is among the most convincingly carved of all coral bottles, with lovely, soft, low-relief, carving from an artist totally in control of his medium, as can be seen by the literate fluency of the poetic inscription. It is one of the transcendent masterpieces of the snuff-bottle arts.
The colour of the stone is pale and striated with much variegation, including a patch of rather yellow colour and some white. It is also typical of early coral material in that it is flawed and patched. It is made up of a single piece of coral that obviously had several flaws and cracks running through it, as so much coral does. The artist has accommodated these flaws in the stone by carving the trunk of the wutong tree along the larger of two cracks and by cutting out the more intractable flaws and replacing them with separate, inlaid sections carved to match the bottle. There is one triangular section on which the bird's raised leg is carved, and the other is carved in the shape of a bat. The two cracks in this stone, both filled with years of accumulated dirt, suggest that the very similar dirty cracks in the unique white coral, Treasury 3, no. 426, may also have been original flaws, not so visible when the material was first carved.
The oval neck is an extraordinary feature and somewhat impractical (but see discussion under Treasury 2, no. 233). It too may have been dictated by a small flaw that the carver came across in hollowing out the bottle. The hollowing also proves the fallacy of a rule of thumb that is currently circulating that modern hardstone bottles can be differentiated from old ones by the profile of the neck-drilling. It holds that old bottles have the mouth drilled down in a cylindrical shape for the entire depth of the neck, whereas modern ones go in at an angle, facilitating the hollowing process by granting easier access to the shoulders. Like so many rules of thumb, while there may be a useful grain or two of truth in this rule if applied cautiously by the knowledgeable, it is pretty well useless as a criterion for the beginner. Here the hollowing is of the angled type, very noticeably, and yet the bottle can hardly be later than 1761 and may be as early as 1701.
The inscription is a rhyming prose encomium in six-character lines, celebrating the phoenix on the other side of the bottle. It reads:
This is the many-splendoured bird of good omen, Bringing luck with the four numinous animals. It eats bamboo seeds on the lofty hills And rests amidst heavenly fragrances in the imperial park.
Since the phoenix is one of the four numinous animals, along with the qilin, the tortoise, and the dragon, the second line seems to require a little mathematical adjustment, but the phoenix depicted on this bottle does not appear to mind in the least.
The seal may be the adopted name of the artist, but given the auspicious nature of coral, it is far more likely to be a reference to the stone rather than the carver, placed there because a seal is somehow a necessary adjunct to such an inscription. Given the line of calligraphy that dates the inscription, it would look mildly uncomfortable without some sort of signature or seal, and since a personal identification by the carver would probably have been unsuitable on a likely imperial product of this kind at the time, the carver has probably used the reference to the material to stand for a signature and amplify the symbolism of the material. The more serious question, of course, is how to interpret the cyclical date which, in the absence of a reign mark, might be either 1701 or 1761. 1821, the next possible reading, seems inconceivable. By that time the style of coral bottles would have been well established for the court, and indeed elsewhere, and a unique, superbly hollowed and segmented bottle of this kind would have been highly unlikely. By that time there would have been sufficient coral bottles made without the need for added segments to cover flaws that this degree of filling and flaws might even have become unacceptable. This is one of the arguments in favour of the even earlier date of 1701, as optimistic as that might seem. Right at the beginning of the production of coral snuff bottles, which was probably during the Kangxi period when no standards had been established, such a bottle as this is more likely to have occurred. The style, however, is equally possible for the Qianlong period, and 1761 is probably the most likely date. That is still early enough that it probably predates most of the other coral bottles known.
來源： Janek Kahn Sotheby's, London, 21 and 22 June, 1965, 拍賣品號 232 Hugh M. Moss Ltd. (1965) Kurt Graf Blucher von Wahlstatt (Count Blucher) Hugh M. Moss Ltd. Margaret Prescott Wise (1970) Edgar and Roberta Wise Robert Kleiner (1995)
文獻： Sotheby & Co. 1965, p. 176 Moss 1971a, 編號 162/3 JICSBS, December 1976, p. 40, top JICSBS, March 1977, front cover Snuff Bottles of the Ch'ing Dynasty, 編號 122 Sin, Hui, and Kwong 1996, 編號 275 Treasury 3, 編號 435
展覽: Hong Kong Museum of Art, OctoberDecember 1978 Los Angeles County Museum, October 1984 徐氏藝術館，香港， October 1996