VOL. 1 (JADE) & VOL. 2 (GLASS)

Book Review by Eric J. Hoffman


   Franz, Hedda & Lutz et al. CA Design, Vol. I 317 pp, Vol. II 250 pp, 335 items illustrated in color. Cloth, 14-5/8 x 11-1/2 inches. $250/each vol.


   It’s hard to believe that only 50 years ago few collectors were interested in Chinese snuff bottles. Chinese antiques dealers dumped them into baskets from which choice examples could be bought for just a few dollars. How far we have come from those days! Just last year an enameled glass bottle sold for an astonishing $3.3 million, and it’s likely that record won’t last for long. While the turning point was undoubtedly the publication of Lilla Perry’s 1960 book “Chinese Snuff Bottles: The Adventures & Studies of a Collector,” the two-volume Franz set will show you what all the excitement is about.

   Chinese jade carvings are one of the most representative, and snuff bottles one of the most collectible, of the Chinese arts. Hedda and Lutz Franz of Hong Kong have spent a quarter century assembling a spectacular collection with remarkable connoisseurship and a bit of whimsy, too. Fortunately for us, not only have they chosen to share their collection, but they have done so in a beautiful, sumptuously produced set of books. More than 85% of the 335 items shown are snuff bottles—clearly the Franz’s main love. A few other small carvings round out the first volume (Jade) and some non-snuff glass vessels the second volume (Glass). Among the jade bottles are an unusual number of fine and rare black (and contrasting black/white) nephrite examples, as well as others that take artistic advantage of the material’s colored inclusions and underskin. This has to be one of the most impressive snuff bottle collections ever assembled.

   Mottled emerald-green jadeite, probably Imperial Palace workshops.

   This pair of books is unlike any you have encountered previously. To begin with, each volume is huge: 14-1/2 inches tall, the set weighing over 13 pounds. And unlike typical snuff bottle books that print the bottles actual size or smaller (often on a sea of wasted white space) these photographs are larger than life, in some cases up to 11 times larger. A few purists may find a 14 inch tall snuff bottle picture alarming, but the larger pictures allow appreciation of the finest detail as well as close study of the tooling marks that offer one of the more reliable clues for dating. Many pieces are depicted in multiple views to better show all sides, and in some cases a bottle is shown against a background of its material enlarged to massive scale, so large that readers can really see into the stone’s grain. The Jade volume received the Silver Award at the Gold Ink Awards in Chicago.

   Great skill was required to take these photographs. White jade, especially, is notoriously difficult to photograph, especially when carved in low relief. So photographers Dino Paul Ip, Chung Yiu Leung, and Hedda Franz deserve high praise for the photographs alone. Bottoms are shown where they add to understanding the bottle. And for several of the bottles whose carved scenes wrap totally around, the design has been photographically “unrolled” so it can be seen all at once and in detail. Some of these unrolled illustrations give the appearance of fine watercolors, reminiscent of those painted for the famous Walters ceramics collection book of 1896.

   Each of the snuff bottles is more impressive than the last. Many are Imperial bottles, or listed as “probably Imperial” or “attributed to the Palace workshops.” The major carving schools are represented, such as Master of the Rocks, Zhiting, and Suzhou, as well as the Yangzhou School for glass bottles. Each item in the main catalog section (“The Collection”) is listed with its collection name and Franz catalog number. In most cases the name is straightforward and its rationale obvious. Other names are whimsical, or allude to the item’s provenance. The reader can have fun trying to figure out the meaning behind the less obvious names. Each item is briefly described in a caption that includes size and dating. For snuff bottles, there is a detailed description of the stopper and sometimes (but not always) information on the quality of the hollowing. The stoppers themselves are miniature works of art, many in coral, jade, or other precious materials. A bit disconcerting is the statement in the acknowledgments that some of the stoppers have been digitally resized “to fit more perfectly.” In those cases you are not seeing the bottle as it actually is. A minor quibble, but where will this digital editing lead?

   Nephrite jade peach-form box, late Ming to early Qing dynasty.

   Glass is not normally thought of as a precious material. But in Chinese arts glass is not molded but rather worked using the same patient lapidary techniques reserved for “carving” jade. Multi-colored cameo carvings of the finest detail, and other advanced glass making techniques, make glass examples among the most interesting of snuff bottles.

   The “Collection” section that forms the bulk of each volume is followed by a supplementary “Additional Information” section. Here the reader will find, typically four items to a page, thumbnail pictures and further information on the provenance, publication and exhibition history, and additional notes. Although there is no long “scholarly” essay in either volume that might tie the collection together, this section does now and then launch into a burst of detail, such as the two pages devoted to the poem inscribed on jade Tea Bowl number 613.

   The provenances provide fascinating reading. Avid collectors will recognize all the top dealers and famous collections that were the source of these treasures. Hugh Moss figures prominently among the provenances and is mentioned with gratitude in the acknowledgments as well. Clearly he provided a guiding hand in forming this outstanding collection. Only one thing could have made these books even better: an essay or two on the collection itself and how the collectors came to form it.

Miniature "realgar glass" paper-mallet form vase, Imperial glassworks.

   With so many bottles of such uniformly high quality it is hard to select favorites, but one would have to be “Afloat in Suzhou” (p. 123), which depicts Zhang Qian adrift in his log boat in white-on-black nephrite jade, the reverse with a beautifully carved and gold-filled draft script poem. Another contender would be “Ink Skin Pebble” (p. 139), its design of a long-tailed bird in foliage delicately picked out in cameo webbing all from the black skin of a white jade bottle. The several exquisite Yangzhou School overlay glass bottles, with their microscopically fine detail, must also be in the running.

   It is evident the Franzes enjoyed assembling this collection. The Franz catalog numbers range all the way up to 1619, giving some clue as to the collection’s size. The Franzes also collect other Chinese scholar’s items, Chinese paintings, and Japanese art. The Acknowledgment hints that additional volumes may be forthcoming, and a third volume is already in preparation, FranzArt: Stone, which will cover agate, chalcedony, and other non-jade stones.

   The over-used term “museum quality” somehow seems inadequate to describe this collection, especially the snuff bottles. The fact is, few museums would be able to assemble, let alone afford, such a collection. And at $250 per volume, even these books are no casual purchase. But for sheer enjoyment in appreciating a spectacular collection, as well as a valuable tool for “training the eye,” these books warrant your consideration. Already more than a dozen major museums and universities have added these two books to their libraries.


Copyright © 2012 by Eric J. Hoffman (Home Page)

Originally published in Adornment magazine, Vol. 10, No. 1, Spring 2013