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Collecting Only Unique Chinese Antiques - The What, How and Why.

A personal view by John Neville Cohen

Firstly, we had decided that we would only collect antiques that we considered to be beautiful, secondly, the craftsmanship had to be outstanding and thirdly we preferred to collect really unique treasures! By unique, we mean hand crafted, rather than mass-produced antiques such as rare postage stamps. We also were inclined to prefer the small Asian antiques that could easily be safely stored without taking up too much space. 

Antique Snuff Bottles, Pendants and Jade
So we have been collecting (mostly at the top end of the market) Chinese snuff bottles, pendants and jade carvings. All of these antiques are truly unique works of art, not always just because of being hand made, but also because of the materials used. 

We first came across Chinese snuff bottles, in a small shop in London that had quite a range of snuff bottles, but it was the stone snuff bottles that particularly intrigued us. Not only had beautiful bottles been formed from a lump of rock that are incredibly well hollowed, through such a tiny hole in the neck, but also they managed to create pictures on some of these bottles from the natural markings or inclusions that happened to be found within the stone. We decided these were worthy of a lot more study, as we were fascinated and the prices of the finest examples were within our reach.

Photographed is a chalcedony well hollowed cameo carved picture snuff bottle with an amethyst and metal stopper. Chalcedony, pale grey with a creamy opaque white skin, simply carved to represent a duck, its head looking back over its shoulders, its eye simply incised, below the duck the waves cut from the grey material; the bottle of flattened form with raised oval foot rim and concave mouth. Chinese, 1750-1850. Stopper: amethyst on metal collar. Provenance: Joan Wasserman collection.

But how and why did we end up collecting pendants and jade carvings having started with snuff bottles? The real reason was due to what I call the constant changing of comparative values. These are what one evaluates by trying to compare the craftsmanship involved with the current relative value.

As an example, we once stopped buying snuff bottles for a while.  This was partly because the prices had suddenly escalated, at such an incredible rate (this can happen now and then in any form of antique collecting), so it was very hard for us to accept paying so much more, for just the same quality of bottles, as those we already owned.  But there was also another reason; it was about at this time that I had discovered (a dealer friend had shown me a small collection) the existence of very fine Chinese pendants.  The very same artists, who had made the best snuff bottles, had also made these pendants.  We were instantly hooked!

The first pendant we bought was an exceptional piece and had a lot of appeal, especially as the price was so much less than half the cost of a similar quality bottle!  Admittedly no hollowing out was involved, in forming the pendant, but some pendants are wonderfully undercut and the remarkable carving skills admired in snuff bottles were still very much evident in these pendants.

So that is how collecting pendants began, quite a while later we learnt that really fine pendants are surprisingly rare, far more so, than top quality snuff bottles.  The search was on and whenever we found one, the price remained much lower than an equivalent bottle.  Partly this was due to the fact that there were simply not as many pendant collectors as there were snuff bottle collectors. This fact did not deter us!

The pendant photographed is a pure white nephrite pendant carved and pierced through out with an elaborate design of two birds feeding, and a complicated design of leaves and ruyi fungus, with leaves to one side.  Chinese, 1780 - 1850.  Attachments: Green glass bead, seed pearls and green cord. Provenance: Roger Keverne

Just as with snuff bottles there are lots of poor quality pendants (and modern copies) that are very easy to find. But in this specialised antique collecting area, it is only the finest of the antiques that are really worth collecting, both from the satisfaction and pleasure derived from appreciating the superior quality of these carvings but also from the investment point of view. 

When considering jade, little jade snuff bottles and pendants are relatively far more expensive than the larger jade carvings, for the amount of work and the size of stone one acquires, although the quality might be equally high. Years ago this was not the case, but now you can buy fine large carvings for not much more than you have to pay for the best little handling pieces.

These carvings are to be found in numerous forms such as animal sculptures, figures, bowls, boxes, screens and boulder carvings. There are some remarkable vases with lids attached by a chain that can consist of a large number of links, all carved out of the one piece of rock. This is quite amazing when one appreciates how hard and difficult Jade is to work with.

Photographed is a large pale celadon jade stone box. Carved as a double gourd box, surrounded by foliage, and young gourds.  Chinese, 18th century.  Provenance: Bill Spiers.

Some fine pieces are of a good colour and flawless material, others make good use of natural colours and markings found in the stone.  The quality of the carving in the 18th century of jade was really superb and even some of the early 19th century pieces are very fine, and in my view this is an area where there are still some good antique carvings available to buy.


John Neville Cohen: An International award winning photographer who also became a well known Asian antiques collector and an enthusiast of Jensen British classic cars.  Other interests are skiing and Salsa dancing.  The author has been a very keen collector for many years in helping to create 'The Cohen collection'.    Please have a look at: -   

To see other articles, with photographs, please use the following link:

Keywords: Collecting Only Unique Chinese Antiques - The What, How and Why, by John Neville Cohen, Collecting, Asian antiques, Snuff Bottles, Chinese Pendants, Jade, jade carvings, well hollowed.

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