An aquamarine 'cicada and gourd' snuff bottle, ('The Imperial Cicada and Gourd Aquamarine'). Probably imperial, 1760–1840. Photo Bonhams

Treasury 3, no. 409. Aquamarine; reasonably well hollowed, carved in the form of a gourd growing from a vine, with leaves and tendrils, the bottom of the gourd serving as a natural foot; carved in relief with a butterfly and a cicada. Height: 5.6 cm - Mouth: 0.47 cm. Stopper: tourmaline, carved to suggest a double-gourd shape. Sold for HK$108,000

Condition: Original material: suffused with the usual icy flaws for this material in larger pieces; chip to a tendril curling up towards the neck on one narrow side; small chip to one side of a leaf to the left of the cicada's head; another small chip on the leaf to the left of the butterfly; small chip to the upper leaf above the cicada

Provenance: Christie's, Hong Kong, 2 October 1991, lot 1200

Published: Kleiner 1995, no. 302
Treasury 3, no. 409
British Museum, London, June–October 1995
Israel Museum, Jerusalem, July–November 1997

Commentary: For the emergence of aquamarine as a material for snuff bottles after the Qing occupation of Chinese Turkestan in 1759, see Sale 2, lot 16. Fruit- and vegetable-form snuff bottles were a staple of mid-Qing imperial snuff-bottle production , as were cicadas.

The stunning material here is as fine and gem-like a colour as one can expect in something the size of a snuff bottle, particularly in the area from which the cicada is carved. It is also of a popular imperial form. There is another clue, however, as to its imperial provenance. The cicada and one large leaf are carved, as a subtle cameo, from darker material, visible in the illustrations but more obvious in the hand. The stone is of two distinct tones of colour, and the darker area has been brilliantly isolated as the insect. This relates directly to the use of two-toned tourmaline in a small series of imperial wares of the late Qianlong period and provides another link with the court and the late Qianlong period although, again, we have allowed for a later date to accommodate the continuation of Qianlong style under his immediate successors.

There is a related bottle illustrated by Perry 1960, no. 95, in green beryl. It is also of fruit-form. Aquamarine and beryl differ only in colour and are otherwise the same mineral and would have been carved by the same workshops, those that also produced other hardstone bottles, including jade, of course.

Bonhams. FINE CHINESE ART, 25 May 2011 to 26 May 2011, Hong Kong, Island Shangri-La Hotel