Silver; with a protruding, slightly recessed flat foot surrounded by a shallow, protruding flat footrim; chased with a continuous design of nine four-clawed dragons amidst formalized waves, with five on one main side and four on the other, and a flaming pearl on each side; the foot impressed with two maker's marks in regular script, one identifying the metal as wenyin (solid silver), the other being the maker's mark Yuanxin (Fragrance of the Fount) Yuanxin, 17601850
Height: 6.29 cm Mouth/lip: 0.65/1.26 cm Stopper: gilt bronze, chased with a lotus design (made from half a garment button); gilt-metal collar
Condition: Small crack in silver to the left of the large dragon's claw; otherwise, workshop condition
Provenance: Ko Collection Christie's London, 14 June 1971, lot 183 Hugh M. Moss Ltd, London Irving Lindzon, Toronto Christie's New York, 21 September 1995, lot 329 Hugh Moss (HK) Ltd J & J Collection Christie's, New York, 29 March 2006, lot 11 Hugh Moss (HK) Ltd (March 2006)
Published: Treasury 7, no. 1626
Exhibited: Christie's, Los Angeles 2003
This unique early silver bottle is among the very few surviving antique silver bottles that are not of export style. It is also certainly among the most striking, with its splendid design of nine dragons. It was apparently inspired by an Imperial moulded porcelain bottle from the late Qianlong era, or (as we must always remind ourselves) it may have inspired the porcelain version. A porcelain example from the Princeton University Art Museum is illustrated in Hughes 2002, p. 206, no. 277.
Although several export-style silver bottles are recorded, those made specifically to local Chinese taste and as part of mainstream manufacture for Chinese use are extremely rare. Another, also affiliated in one way or another with a particular moulded porcelain bottle (of the Jiaqing reign), is in the Carl Barron Collection. When two silver bottles resemble moulded porcelain examples, we are inclined to believe that the porcelain bottles came first. It is more likely that two bottles from a far larger group of Imperial moulded porcelain bottles would inspire isolated spinoffs in another material than that two very unusual silver bottles would be echoed in a few Imperial moulded porcelain bottles but have no wider effect on the group.
We may be certain that both silver and gold bottles existed in far larger numbers originally. These two metals, unlike more prosaic metals such as white copper and bronze, were worth melting down for their material content, even if the quantity obtained was small, and there would have been times during the late-Qing and Republican periods when the value of the metal content would have been easier to realize by melting down snuff bottles. Another problem, of course, was that with value tied up in a work of art made of precious metal, it is not possible to realize it in parts; the entire bottle must be sold, and if a buyer cannot be found, the desperate owner may be better off converting it into something that is not only exchangeable but also divisible.