A carved ivory 'Liu Hai' snuff bottle 1850–1927
Lot 126Y
A carved ivory 'Liu Hai' snuff bottle
Sold for HK$ 125,000 (US$ 16,111) inc. premium

Lot Details
A carved ivory 'Liu Hai' snuff bottle 1850–1927 A carved ivory 'Liu Hai' snuff bottle 1850–1927 A carved ivory 'Liu Hai' snuff bottle 1850–1927 A carved ivory 'Liu Hai' snuff bottle 1850–1927 A carved ivory 'Liu Hai' snuff bottle 1850–1927
A carved ivory 'Liu Hai' snuff bottle
8.55cm high (including original stopper).


  • Treasury 7, no. 1553


    A carved ivory 'Liu Hai' snuff bottle

    Ivory; carved in the form of Liu Hai, bare chested with a looped string of cash around his shoulders, his loose-fitting robe tied beneath his pot belly in a large bow
    Height: 8.55 cm (including original stopper)
    Mouth: 0.52 cm
    Stopper: ivory, carved in the form of a topknot of hair, possibly intended to be held in a tied cloth

    Condition: age cracks in the ivory; some larger cracks above and around Liu Hai's necklace and in the drapes of his cloak are possibly filled, but appears merely filled with grime

    Sir Victor Sassoon, Bart, G.B.E
    Hugh Moss (HK) Ltd (1985)

    Lucas 1950, vol. 3, no. 723
    Kleiner 1987, no. 192
    Treasury 7, no. 1553

    Sydney L. Moss Ltd, London, October 1987

    With a clearer picture of what constitutes Japanese production of ivory snuff bottles, we can now see that most ivory figural snuff bottles were made in Japan after 1854. There is pressing evidence that the present example, however, is Chinese. It was part of a very large collection of ivory carvings purchased by Sir Victor Sassoon (1881–1961). Sydney Edward Lucas, in a brief introduction to the impressive catalogue he prepared for Sassoon and published in 1950, notes that Sassoon formed the collection while in Beijing between 1915 and 1927. Sassoon then went on to become one of Shanghai's leading businessmen and property developers. Lucas's three-volume catalogue of close to a thousand pieces includes just over one-hundred snuff bottles. One of the monumental vanity publications of Chinese art from the twentieth century, it was published in a limited edition with each set signed by Sassoon. Because so many of the pieces were obviously made for him, it gives us an excellent impression of what was being made in China between 1915 and 1927. For Chinese dealers of the early twentieth century, Sassoon was a godsend: wealthy, uninformed, and intent on forming a major collection in a short period of time. Judging from the collection, which contains many old pieces along with the new, he was initially sold everything the dealers could lay their hands upon in the way of early ivories, but as these became thinner on the ground they obviously kept up the supply by having 'antique' ivory carvings made to order for him. Once such a well-financed and on-going demand was established, it would have had a widespread effect among ivory carvers and dealers, even from other centres of carving.

    The contents of the Sassoon Collection do not suggest he had ready access to Japanese exports at the time (which were, in any case, targeted on the Western market), so his supply would have been primarily Chinese. It is quite obvious that while Sassoon may have stumbled across a few old bottles, the vast majority were made for him, and many of them by only a few different people. Page after page of similar bottles appear, practically all with matching stoppers, and with very obvious stylistic similarities. They were artificially aged, of course, and patinated in some cases, but the truth radiates from the pages of his book. That Sassoon himself believed them to be old is demonstrated by the catalogue entries, where they are predominantly dated to the eighteenth century, some to the early eighteenth century. Among them is an alarming number of quite impractical, highly unlikely snuff bottles in the form of vases, set on stands on which children play, animals sit, and figures stand, sit, or recline. One has a figure of Li Bai, the drunken poet, reclining against an enormous vase with his own covered jar of wine set beside it, all on a wide circular base (Lucas 1950, vol. 3, no. 725). We suspect Sassoon did not get out much, as a cursory look around the antique shops should have revealed that such elaborate, sculptural snuff bottles were not likely to be either functional or eighteenth century.

    That some of the bottles were culled is evidenced by a group of them that were offered anonymously by Sotheby's, London, 3 and 16 December 1997 (for instance, lots 588 and 569–579). How easily bottles can be separated from their original stoppers is demonstrated here, since by the time they were illustrated by Sotheby's, someone had removed all the original stoppers—perhaps in a foolish, short-sighted, and indeed vandalistic attempt to obscure their true age.

    This particular bottle does not fit into the group of obviously modern bottles in the Sassoon Collection, but given its company, we would be wise to allow that it might have been made for him. There is only one other figural bottle in the Sassoon Collection, and it is of similar style (ibid., no. 722), but it depicts a standing man wearing a sash and holding a vase on his shoulders. Considering the rarity of Chinese ivory figural snuff bottles, it seems unlikely that Sassoon would end up with two of them and that they should be stylistically similar. However, even if we cannot rule out so late a date of production, it seems safe to assume that both are Chinese.

    This bottle is certainly one of the most impressive of the very few known Chinese ivory figural snuff bottles. It also has the advantage of having no apocryphal reign mark, as would normally have been added to Japanese versions, so whenever it was made, at least it makes no obvious pretence at having been made in the Qianlong period

    In the present example, the entire sculpture has been radically simplified from the moulded porcelain models for the depiction of Liu Hai, and not just by the absence of the toad. But whatever the carver left out, he applied himself thoughtfully to what he included. This is an impressive figural sculpture, well observed and convincing, with the weight shifted to one side onto the right leg as the figure tilts his head pensively in the same direction.


    高﹕ 8.55 厘米 (包括原件的蓋)
    口經: 0.52 厘米
    蓋:象牙,雕髻形 ,也許應該識讀為包扎的小巾


    Sir Victor Sassoon, Bart, G.B.E
    Hugh Moss (HK) Ltd (1985)

    Lucas 1950, vol. 3, 編號723
    Kleiner 1987, 編號192
    Treasury 7, 編號1553

    Sydney L. Moss Ltd, London, October 1987

    本壺大概不是 1854年以後的製品。它原來屬於維克多.沙遜 (1881–1961) 在北京所收藏的牙器珍藏。沙遜1915年到1927年北京捲入了大量的象牙器,1920年以後就開始把沙遜的資金和經營活動搬到上海,過幾年就成為上海灘的首富。1950年,盧卡斯氏給沙遜氏編了三冊的珍藏目錄,大約一千藏品中有一百多件鼻煙壺。很多藝術品顯然是特地為沙遜氏製的,因此,這個目錄有助於了解中國那時候製作工藝品的情況。對二十世紀前半的中國古董商來說,沙遜氏是天賜之物﹕有的是錢,無知、要疾速搜集偉大的珍藏。考慮他珍藏舊物、新貨都有,可以推測,古董商把所有可以找到的古牙器賣光以後,一定是著手定製仿品。規模大而持久的要求對各地的雕牙匠及古董商有很大的影響。

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