Where did all the snuff bottles come from?

Where did all the snuff bottles come from, currently for sale on the antique market? Just a few years ago they were rare, yet now, there are over 15,000 on Ebay alone. China has recently flooded the market, and the reasons are deeper than just a few peasants trying to make money off of their grandparents things.

They are called “snuff bottles” for the finely powdered tobacco that was introduced in the 1600’s, but they are also used to contain other things like opium or other medicines. Though opium was known to the Chinese before the British started importing it from India in the 1700’s, mainly as a herbal remedy that was drank for cramps and headaches- smoking it created waves of addicts and social problems that went along with it. Before either of these introductions of new plants and trade, these small, airtight containers were medicine bottles which may have contained all kinds of remedies; there are many that date back prior to the introduction of smoking opium, and tobacco.

“While the Chinese found smoking tobacco distasteful, snuff, which mixed tobacco with herbs and spices, was believed to have medicinal properties. It was considered a cure for migraines, and as one high-ranking court scholar wrote, it was “said to be able to improve one’s sight, especially to exorcise epidemic diseases.” Because snuff was inhaled through the nose, it often caused one to sneeze, which was considered a means of purging illnesses and impurities.

The court, however, did not have access to substantial quantities of snuff until Jesuit missionaries, hoping to gain access to the “Forbidden Kingdom,” presented Kangxi, the second emperor of the Qing Dynasty, with an elaborate snuff box in 1684. While the emperor was pleased by this gift, he realized that, thanks to China’s humid climate, snuff would cake in a box, which could not be sealed very tightly. He found that traditional Chinese medicine bottles made better containers.

So Emperor Kangxi had beautiful snuff bottles made for himself and his whole family. Soon, delicately handcrafted and ornate snuff bottles were a wildly popular symbol of status in the imperial court—tobacco, imported from the New World, was prohibitively expensive for most commoners. For the upper crust of Chinese society, a snuff bottle was the equivalent of a Rolex watch. A man talking to his colleagues would pull out his bottle and offer snuff to share so that the others could admire the beauty of his bottle. For this reason, the bottles were also used in bribes.” –From an article on Collectors Weekly about Snuff Bottles

Because they were used to contain opium, and everyone had one (or two or three because they were also used to contain natural herbal remedies) they were confiscated in great numbers during the times of the Cultural Revolution in China and even to the current day. Over the years the Communists amassed a giant stockpile, and instead of letting it go to waste, they’ve decided to sell all of them on Ebay.

Where the proceeds of these sales go, is uncertain, but it isn’t going to any addict treatment center or anti-tobacco campaign. These confiscated antiques may be given out as perks or kickbacks to loyal party members to make a few bucks off of, or as gifts to grease wheels and gain favor in other ways. In high numbers are Tibetan snuff bottles as well as Buddhists, and certainly they have been completely disenfranchised by this entire sale. For all we know most of the owners of these bottles are rotting away in forced labor prisons or dead, while the others were stolen from graves.

Recent search for “snuff bottle” on Ebay

  • 15,475 on 12/19/2015 including 3,093 auctioned in 10 days

Very sad to see someone’s family heirloom end up like this. But there are also ones from tombs, taken perhaps from museums too? Or maybe they just rob graves prior to building ghost towns that no one lives in, but it is not just an incident limited to one seller or two.


See this auction on Ebay by fresh-strawberry


See this auction on Ebay by fresh-strawberry


See this auction on Ebay by fresh-strawberry


See this auction by fresh-strawberry

Almost the exact same bottle by the exact same seller again and again- note the dirt lodged in the details of the carving and small gravel. Then we have the next examples by a completely different seller of the exact same snuff bottles in the exact same condition with dirt lodged in the details fo the carving and small gravel…


See this auction by alliway


See this auction by alliway


See this auction by alliway


Buy It Now page ($12.99) by alliway

And then there are other completely different sellers as well:


See this auction by another seller by xjh5838


Buy It Now page ($13.99) by 518*curio


Buy It Now page ($15.00) by qing*206219

It appears that the seller above, who often carries more high end jade and antiques, has oiled this old jade, once again restoring its former glory as the Emperor’s medicine cabinet. Or it could have been pulled from the vaults of some other high ranking official(s)? However because they are all consistently in a similar condition, it is likely that they were owned by just one individual. Because these snuff bottles, all the same and of great age- perhaps Tang Dynasty– are in different shops it substantiates the theory that these were not just taken by individual tomb robbers working interdependently, but these were taken from China’s museums and storehouses of such.


See this auction on Ebay by mmholg

This rainbow elephant is another superb example of not only snuff bottles but glass, being auctioned without provenance for a fraction of its value. It is a fancy thing to begin with, with a ruyi– a ruling scepter- on top, and would have been owned by the elite of the elite. The cap, though it may have been replaced, appears to also be Tibetan. From the amount of dirt on it, it is very well used for the high quality that it is, however it is another likely candidate that may have been dug up from the grave.



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