Magic in a Bottle

“She collected perfume bottles,” the man said to me as I picked up the small, carved white jade bottle.  The “she” he was talking about was sitting in a rocker, covered in a throw blanket on the porch.  Her long white hair and sallow complexion indicated a long life that was in its decline.

I had noticed the signs the day before – Antique Sale! Saturday from 8am-1pm.  Ever since I was a kid, I’ve loved searching for treasure.  Maybe it was watching Indiana Jones ten times too many in the theatre or the fact that I would go antiquing with my mom on the weekends as a child…whatever it was, and is, I am hooked on garage, yard, estate and jumble sales.  I always think that I’m going to discover that one overlooked item that will turn into a huge find.  I watch Antiques Roadshow (American and British!) incessantly and I know the appraisers names and specialties by heart.

I woke up early and got there around 8:30am.  The man told me that a dozen people had been waiting outside the gate before he opened at 8 o’clock.  They had come and gone and I was alone as I meandered around the picked over items.  The yard was strewn with old records, knick knacks and other vintage items up for sale from her long life.  I saw the jade bottle and after he told me what it was, I placed it back down, maybe because it was missing the top and I was unsure if I wanted it at all.  For some reason after walking around the tables a second time, I came back to the small bottle that fit in the palm of my hand.  I looked at it, then over at him.  He said with a shrug of his shoulders, “a dollar”.  So I gave him the money and dropped the bottle into my purse.

At first glance, I wasn’t even sure if it was real jade.  So I Googled how to identify real jade from fake.  A basic scratch test proved that it was indeed genuine.  Since the top was missing, I had envisioned an ornate white jade perfume topper that emerged from the bottle like a pineapple head.  I wondered where that must have gone.  Did it break?  Was it thrown away?  Or was it still in the old woman’s home?

I searched through eBay looking at old perfume bottles but nothing was as small as mine.  Just about the time my eyes began to cross, I Googled perfume collectors and found the International Perfume Bottle Association — who knew?  I found an archivist and sent her an email with pictures and dimensions of my little bottle.  Two days later I received the following email from the her:

“The bottle is really lovely but it’s not a perfume. It’s a Chinese snuff bottle. Snuff is a fragrance-enhanced tobacco product. Note the tiny opening in the top which was made to accept a snuff spoon. The stopper would have had a rounded shape like a mushroom, and have an attachment that looks like a dauber but actually has a tiny spoon at the end. It’s hard to date snuff bottles because some styles have been made for centuries. Although I’m not an expert in snuff bottles, I believe this one is probably 20th century.”

At that point I wondered if there was an International Snuff Bottle Association!  I checked eBay again and found a bigger-than-I-could-have-ever-imagined quantity of snuff bottles for sale.  They ranged in price from $40 up to $14,000!  Who were these snuff bottle enthusiasts?  What kind of underground group are these folks part of?  Why snuff bottles?

Then I found the mother of all snuff bottle information on a webpage in Chinese and in English.  A Dr. Tsou started the site and his About page reads the following:

“Researching and collecting snuff bottles is completely a personal hobby. I love these miniature bottles so much and spend lots of time in the study and research. Hope to use this place to exchange information and make friends with all snuff bottle lovers around the world.”

Well, he seemed like the natural next step in finding more information about my little bottle.  I emailed Dr. Tsou sending him pictures and details.  A day later, I received his response from Taiwan:

“Hi! Alison:  This is a A CHINESE MONGOLIAN-STYLE SNUFF BOTTLE. Made in 19C White jade on the face, good quality. The jade is very very beautiful. The jade is {more} expensive than the snuff bottle itself, I think.  Value about 500 USD. You are very lucky to have this treasure. Can you tell me where and when do you get this bottle? Thank you!”

WOW…how did this little bottle make its way to Venice Beach, California?!  I couldn’t believe what I was reading.  I wrote him back and told him I bought if for $1 at a yard sale.  He wrote again telling me I was “a very, very lucky person!”

But there was one man who I wondered what his thoughts would be about this treasure.  His opinion above all others would be the icing on the cake…Lark Mason is the foremost authority on Asian antiquities for the Antiques Roadshow and I’m a huge (nerd alert) fan of his!  I searched the web for his contact info and when I found it, I sent him an email with details and photos of the snuff bottle.  I really didn’t think I would ever hear from him.  But I hoped for the best.

In the meantime, I decided to post my snuff bottle on eBay for sale on Friday at 12noon.  At first I thought I’d start the bidding at $850, then I thought $650.  I finally placed it in between at $750.  I’m not sure why I chose this number, given that it was $250 more than what Dr. Tsou had estimated, but my gut told me that $750 was a good, solid number.  It was listed on a seven day auction without a Buy It Now option.  I had no idea how much the bidding could go up to, so why limit myself to a Buy It Now price?

Within an hour of the posting, I received two emails from buyers asking if I had a Buy It Now option.  I told them I did not.  Then a few minutes later, another buyer asked if I would take $1000 for the bottle!  At that point I knew I had something very special.

A day after I posted it for sale on eBay, I received an email back from Lark Mason!  I couldn’t believe my eyes!  Here’s what he wrote:

“A terrific buy Alison!

This is a Mongolian or Tibetan mounted Chinese jade snuff bottle. The body is low-grade silver or silver plate and the stones are jadeite and pink quartz or perhaps tourmaline. The bottle was created in the early 20th c. and the white jade plaques are from the 18th or 19th c. At auction the bottle is probably worth around $600-900. The two plaques were originally from a Chinese belt buckle.”

I was gobsmacked!  I was also extremely thrilled that I had placed my starting price right in the middle of what Mr. Mason had valued it at.  He also said that his company would be delighted to offer the snuff bottle for sale on my behalf adding “I think your example is extremely nice and will do very well in one of our sales.”  He also thanked me for my nice comments and for watching the Roadshow.  I geeked out…Lark Mason not only told me the history of this little treasure, but also valued it for me!

As I monitored the auction, I noticed that there were not only a lot of views, but also many “watchers.”  Watchers on eBay are keeping track of your item.  They can be sellers of similar items, buyers who want to keep an eye on how it sells, or people interested in buying your item and want to be notified when a bid is placed.  By the end of the auction there had been 257 views and 32 watchers!

I knew that the bidding wouldn’t start for a few days, but seeing the the number of views and watchers increase hourly was very exciting.  Then on Tuesday evening around 11 o’clock as I laid my head down to sleep, the sounds of the eBay bidding chime rang from my computer!  Two bids had come in raising the price to $770 — I know this because I jumped out of my bed to look!  I was surprised the bidding had started this early.  Then it remained quiet until Thursday.  Three more bids came in that night raising the value over $900.

As the countdown to the end of the auction came near, the chime was ringing every few minutes.  It was hard to keep up, but when the value jumped from $1400 up to $2,000, I almost slid off my chair.  I sat slack-jawed staring at the computer screen.  When the cash register Cha-Ching sound rang from my computer, the final price for this little gem rang in at $2,118.

How this exquisite little find make its way from China or Mongolia between the 18th and 21st centuries to land up in a yard sale in Venice Beach is beyond me.  In under two weeks though, my research had found the right people to offer up an incredible history on the snuff bottle.  Finding the experts and uncovering the backstory was the exciting part for me. I felt like Indiana Jones and even had my Antiques Roadshow moment!


If you enjoyed this post, please check out my book, Think Before You Ink and Other Cautionary Tales on Amazon!


4 thoughts on “Magic in a Bottle

  1. OMG!!!!

    Alison, My Darling – this is THE BEST STORY, EVER! I Love it. I was on the edge of my desk chair the whole time. Congrats! You are FOR REAL – the World’s Best Treasure Finder! So GOOD! Hope all’s well. I’m busy-busy-busy. SO sick (again!) last week — but I’m ok — just sound like I’ve got a Maxi-Pad shoved up my nose – have s Story Show tonight, an MD appt, blood donation, Cedars visit & a dinner party tomorrow, an MD appt in SM Thursday afternoon — then I’ll squat til 7:30 and go to a screening – then pray I don’t wake-up sick again, on Friday.

    Sorry I didn’t get to see yomamma when she was here. Drat. Hope all’s well — and you’re good and great things are happening — I mean, besides this story. THIS IS FANTASTIQUE! Mazel Tov!




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