This rock crystal snuff bottle from China dates to the late 18th or early 19th century, when its owner would have used it to hold powdered tobacco. One craftsman roughed out the shape of the bottle, which is slightly more than 2 inches tall, before another hollowed it out with a drill that he powered by pressing a foot pedal. A third colleague carved the lines of the Chinese letterforms so that they resembled the flowing strokes of a calligrapher’s brush. The slender implement inside the bottle is the tobacco spoon; typically, an imbiber would ladle a measure of snuff onto the webbing between his thumb and index finger and inhale.
Dr. Dean Edell has been broadcasting his syndicated medical call-in radio show from San Francisco for nearly 30 years, reaching more than a million listeners through 200 stations. Edell, a 1967 graduate of Cornell University’s medical school, has authored two medical advice books: Eat, Drink, & Be Merry (Harper, 2000) and Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Healthiness (Harper, 2005). Late last year, he auctioned off the bulk of his collection of rare medical books and illustrations at the New York branch of Christie’s. The 200 items together garnered more than $1.4 million.
The bottle’s carved script is a poem whose narrator recalls his youthful debauchery. It reads in part, “Worrying spring might disappear too early, I drank so many evenings without stopping. When I became sober, I discovered wine stains all over my robes. . . Secretly I feel sorry to see those flying orioles who still loved me so deeply. Early in the morning they came looking for me in my West Garden.” The term “flying orioles” refers to prostitutes, and the West Garden was the traditional Forbidden Palace residence of the top imperial concubine. The bottle lacks an imperial seal, which would have indicated that the emperor saw and approved the bottle, but the phrase “my West Garden” suggests that it was made for the emperor.
Edell bid $7,000 for the bottle at a 1992 Sotheby’s auction in New York; he had the poem translated five years later. “This is such a personal story,” Edell says of the tale chronicled in the verses. “The person who had this made, or for whom it was made, wanted it to be private. Maybe it was imperial. Maybe it was for a concubine, or a favorite scholar. There’s no telling.”
Edell owns some 300 Chinese snuff bottles, which he keeps at his home in rural Mendocino County, Calif., displaying about 50 of them at any given time. They are strictly ornamental; Edell, who never has smoked, chewed, or sniffed tobacco, has no interest in employing the bottles for their intended purpose. That would be against any doctor’s orders.