Aquamarine; well hollowed, with a flat lip and concave foot surrounded by a narrow, flattened footrim; carved with a chi dragon Probably imperial, 17601860 Height: 5.2 cm Mouth/lip: 0.47/1.5 cm Stopper: tourmaline; partially-gilt silver collar
Condition: natural iridescent flaws throughout; small dimple below the neck on the dragon side, part of the original process and for the purpose of removing a flaw; miniscule chip from the mouth of the dragon
Provenance: Butterfield and Butterfield, San Francisco, 8 November 1984, lot 1733 Thomas C. Van Nuys Robert Kleiner (1994)
The accumulation in the Bloch Collection of major early beryl snuff bottles, mostly of the aquamarine variety, may lead one to underestimate their relative rarity. They are much less common than they seem here.
This is part of the early group distinguished by excellent material, fine workmanship and hollowing, and elongated ovoid forms, often exaggeratedly so, as in Sale 2, lot 3. They also relate to a group of glass bottles carved to imitate aquamarine, sensibly dated to the mid-Qing period and possibly ascribed to the court. Again, where we find glass and other stones in a coherent group, the palace or other multi-purpose imperial workshops suggest themselves as a possible source. This and Sale 2, lot 3 also have chi dragons as their main subject, another indication of an imperial source. Whether that source was the palace workshops in Beijing is less certain. According to the imperial archives, snuff bottles made of precious stones were mostly produced at the palace workshops or at workshops in Suzhou or Yangzhou (see Gugong bowuyuan 1995, p. 29). Another popular subject for this group is figures, sometimes the Star God of Longevity, Shou Lao. We suspect that the entire group, including the glass bottles, may represent part of the mid-Qing imperial output from about the 1760s through to the end of the Daoguang period. The latter end of this range is perhaps represented by no. 66 in Kleiner 1994, where a bottle of lovely aquamarine of this general formal range is decorated with the sort of scene of playing children found on Daoguang imperial porcelain snuff bottles. Several of them have inscriptions in relief. For two examples, see Stevens 1976, nos. 641 and 642, both decorated with deities. Another is in the Gerry Mack Collection (Hall 1990, p. 33, Plate L) and a rare double version in what was catalogued as green beryl, where one elongated oval is shorter than the other, was sold by Sotheby's, London, 28 October 1969, lot 182. Related glass examples are in Stevens 1976, no. 1002, and from the Alice McReynolds Collection, Sotheby's, New York, 16 April 1985, lot 76 (also of the same elongated oval form of many in this group).
As with the entire group, the workmanship here is good and the hollowing extremely well achieved, with exterior and interior profiles well matched and finished while leaving sufficient depth of material to provide good colour.
It is tempting to think that this stopper may have been an original. The two-toned tourmaline is typical of the material discussed under no. 407, with its green-and-pink colouring in a single specimen, apparently popular at court during the mid-Qing period. It came from the Van Nuys Collection complete with this stopper, although we shall never know whether it left the court wearing it.