The Ko Collection

Art has always attracted forgers. In the Song dynasty (960-1280 AD) a burgeoning interest in antiquity was supplied by the excavation of ancient burials and other sites, but also by clever fakers and nothing has changed except the range of interests and the values.

Faking of snuff bottles seems to have begun in the first half of the nineteenth century, and become noticeable during the Daoguang reign. Up until then the focus for snuff-takers was newly-made bottles, even for collectors such as Heshen (1750-1799), the notoriously corrupt, late-Qianlong Minister who is known to have amassed a considerable collection of them, among other arts. He gathered precious bottles because of their material and workmanship more than for any consideration of their age. At some time during the mid-Qing, however, snuff takers began to appreciate age as a determining factor in snuff-bottle connoisseurship and seek out ancient bottles. By then, they had more than a century of snuff-bottle history behind them. At first faking may have been a fairly low-key process – perhaps just adding a spurious Yongzheng reign mark to a porcelain bottle that anyone who knew their snuff-bottle history would not for a moment think was made so early. We have no idea today when fakers first began to try to fool their audience or to what extent they began to invent plausible ‘early’ wares.

Soon afterwards snuff-takers began to be joined by non-snuff-taking collectors who were buying curiosities and antiquities for aesthetic reasons, including a growing number of foreigners as the nineteenth century progressed. The results of this began to be seen by the mid-century when types began to be made to satisfy the demands of display rather than function. After the opening of Japan in the 1850s the enormous skills of Japanese craftsmen was turned to an almost exclusively collecting market in the West – Europe and America, prompting a new range of collectors’ bottles. As collecting became ever more popular, so fakers responded, and have done in waves up to the present day, when faking is rife. The internet, where until quite recently, the range of old bottles, albeit perhaps not the finest in the world, sprinkled with a few fakes has now become a home for the disposal of thousands of brand new bottles, interspersed with the occasional old example.

Caveat emptor! Let the buyer beware!

Because of this provenance is becoming more and more important to collectors – although, caveat emptor even there, since these days provenance is faked as cunningly as the works of art pretending to it! With faking coming in identifiable waves susceptible to study and understanding, a provable, or at least credible provenance of even ten or twenty years might prove crucial. One of nearly a century can be invaluable, both as a guide to collectors and as a major research tool for students of the subject.

For that reason the Ko Collection is among the most useful of early collections for our understanding of the snuff bottle arts because we have a record of the date and place of nearly every acquisition for one of the largest of the earlier European collections (1507 pieces in all). Along with other important collections formed in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, some recorded, although seldom with the meticulous detail available for the Ko Collection, and some donated to various museums providing a terminal date, it is one of the key resources for the researcher.

The Collection was formed in China between 1910 and 1947. Apart from its 1507 bottles, there were a number of snuff dishes, loading funnels and shovels, spoons and spare stoppers, some of them made in the early twentieth century presumably at Jingdezhen to provide spares for bottles acquired without them. Each bottle was entered in a catalogue in continuous numerical order, after having been purchased and was affixed with a numbered with a suffix (such as /F, /S 1, etc.), but these were meant only for recording and administrative purposes and can be ignored for research purposes.

Since we know where ‘Mr. Ko’ (Evaristo Caretti – see biography) was posted throughout his career we can make assumptions about the place of purchase as well as knowing the date.

The following numbered bottles were acquired in Xian (Sianfu) in Shaanxi province:
1910 - nos. 1-10. 1911 - nos. 11-20. 1912 - nos. 21-30

While in Shanghai he acquired:
1913 - nos. 31-40

Moving to Changsha, in Hunan province:
1914 - nos. 41-50. 1915 - nos. 51-60

Back in Shanghai again:
1916 - nos. 61-70 1917 - nos. 71-80 1918 - nos. 81-90

Moving to Fuzhou (Foochow), in Fujian province:
1919 nos. 91-100

Then one year, 1920 is unaccounted for before he began to acquire bottles in Beijing in the following year, but since no numbers are missing to suggest a brief spell elsewhere, it makes no difference for research purposes:
1921 - nos. 101-192. 1922 - nos. 193-285. 1923 - nos. 286-378 1924 - nos. 379-471

In Jinan (Tsinanfu) in Shandong province:
1926 - nos. 472-563. 1927 - nos. 564-656. 1928 - nos. 657-749.

Another stint back in Shanghai:
1930 - nos. 750-839. 1931 - nos. 840-930. 1932 - nos. 931-1021. 1933 - nos. 1022-1112. 1934 - nos. 1113-1153

Moving to Nanjing (Nanking):
1935 - nos. 1154-1184. 1936 - nos. 1185-1215

In Tianjin (Tientsin):
1938 - nos. 1216-1261. 1839 - nos. 1262-1307. 1940 - nos. 1308-1353. 1941 - nos. 1354-1399. 1942 - nos. 1400-1445 1943 - nos. 1446-1491

His last years of collecting were spent between Tianjin and Shanghai:
1945 - nos. 1492-1497. 1946 - nos. 1498-1502. 1947 - nos. 1503-1507.

The collection has been crucial in resolving several research problems already, including that of enamelled glass bottles made by Ye Bengqi in the late-1930s and 1940s, since the Ko Collection has bottles of the type he claimed as his own works but which we can prove were not as they were acquired by Caretti before Ye was producing such wares. It is also interesting to note the fact that only very of the Japanese products are included in the collection. These were mostly marketed directly to the West through various outlets but a few would have been aimed at foreign collectors in China when the Japanese controlled large areas of the country, including Shanghai, for a while.

I first met Giovanni Caretti in the early 1960s and we became good friends through our mutual interest in snuff bottle history. Giovanni agreed before he died to put together all his documentation on his father and the collection so that I could work on it and provide future students of the subject with this invaluable information and in doing so now I fulfil a promise to a good friend who understood both the importance of the material he had in the family archives, and his responsibility to put it all to good use, despite the amount of work involved - undertaken willingly and with his usual and formidable focus and attention to detail. Giovanni is greatly missed by his many friends in the snuff-bottle world, but because of his dedication, the information contained in his records lives on and continues to provide valuable information freely to all students of the subject.