Transparent, slightly cloudy, brown amber, with partial, slight crizzling; carved in the form of a peach, its surface with a severed leafy branch and five bats 17401820 Height: 4.33 cm Mouth: 0.47 cm Stopper: tortoise-shell, carved in the form of a flying bat; with integral cork and spoon
Condition: natural flaws within amber; tiny indentation just below lip, barely visible; otherwise, workshop condition
Provenance: Sotheby's, Hong Kong, 15 May 1994, lot 1339
Published: Treasury 7, no. 1590
The most telling point in favour of a palace attribution here is the style, which is so close to that of the finest nephrite naturalistic examples that it seems likely that they were made under the same circumstances for the same patron across a wide range of materials, which is more typical of the multi-disciplined palace workshops than of private production, where workshops tended to specialize in one range of materials.
The crizzling here is more sparsely spaced than on several other amber bottles in the collection; it also does not cover the entire outer surface, leaving one side largely unaffected. This may suggest that it has lain in storage for a long period of time, perhaps with one side somewhat protected from the ravages of climate. This is distinctly tenuous as evidence, but it is worth bearing in mind that many of our imperial bottles may have remained in the imperial collection, stored and unused for more than a century, until a large part of the collection was dispersed through the sacking of the Summer Palace in 1860, the results of the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, and the anomalous period between the end of the dynasty in 1911 and the eviction from the Forbidden City of the last emperor in 1924. The first two events were excuses for extensive looting, while the last left the imperial family and its retinue without any government funds, forcing them to fall back on selling off imperial treasures to maintain their lifestyle. At the same time, of course, the unscrupulous were also helping themselves to such treasures on a regular basis. The unauthorized disposal of imperial works of art finally attracted the attention of the abdicated emperor, Pu Yi, shortly before he was evicted from the palace forever. In 1923, he ordered an audit of treasures, apparently focussing on the Jianfu gong, one storehouse for works of art where gold Buddhist altar ornaments, Buddhist paintings, several hundred pieces of porcelain, jades, bronzes, and thirty-one boxes of robes were stored. Eunuchs panicked and decided to set fire to the building in order to disguise the fact that a great many of the treasures had mysteriously disappeared over the previous decade or more since 1912, and possibly even before. The most detailed account of this cultural vandalism appears in Reginald F. Johnston, Twilight in the Forbidden City (first published in 1934), pp. 335337.
If ever a stopper looked like the original, this one does. It even comes very close to fitting the curvature around the mouth of the bottle. That it is unlikely to be the original, however, is suggested by the symbolism and by the length of the integral spoon (original to the stopper), which is far too short. The bottle is already decorated with the symbolically significant five bats (representing the five blessings). Seven and nine would also be auspicious, being lucky numbers, but six has no specific meaning and would be an unlikely number for a functional Qing snuff bottle made for an audience that knew precisely what five bats meant, and for whom a sixth would be entirely superfluous.
There is a related amber bottle of a similar colour in the Denis Low Collection (Low 2002 no. 265).