The Ko Collection

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Mr. KO - A Twentieth-century Marco Polo

Giovanni Caretti

Evaristo Caretti, the “Mr. Ko” of snuff bottle lore, was born on October 28, 1879, at Pinerolo, a small town near Torino (Turin), the capital city of the region of Piedmont, northern Italy. The second son of a middle-ranking government official, he must have felt restless and unsuited for a quiet provincial life, so after finishing high school, he volunteered in 1898 for service in the Italian Navy as an ordinary seaman.

Fate was soon to provide him with the adventure he was seeking. The Boxer War broke out in 1900 and his ship, the light cruiser “Lombardia”, hurriedly sailed to join an international force operating off the China coast. Three years were to elapse before the vessel’s return home.

Young Caretti’s first contacts with the Celestial Empire were comical. On one occasion, his ship having anchored off Taku (Tanggu), he was sent ashore with mail for his country’s Legation in Peking (Beijing). Not knowing his way about and with no knowledge of Chinese, he traced two ruts on the muddy ground, running along between them, rotating his arms like engine pistons and puffing “Too-too”. The intelligent rickshaw-men promptly understood and took him to the railway station!

On one of the cruiser’s visits to Shanghai, Caretti (by then a petty officer) learnt that employment opportunities in the Chinese Postal Service were currently open for foreign nationals. Thus, after “Lombardia”s arrival back in Italy in February 1904, EC resigned from the Navy, made his way once more to China, applied for admittance to the Postal Service and, having by then mastered sufficient English, was accepted.

A decree by Emperor Kuanghsu (Guangxu) in the year 1896 founded the Imperial Chinese Postal Service (ICPS), with the object of fulfilling a basic need as well as to provide some revenue for payment of the heavy war indemnities imposed by the foreign powers.i In previous years, mail facilities had already been introduced by England, France, Russia and Germany, within their respective zones of influence. However, the ICPS’s main predecessor had been the Customs Post Office, created in 1863 and opened to the public in 1878, operating successfully under Inspector General Sir Robert Hart’s efficient supervision.

In 1904, Hart’s Chinese Maritime Customs employed 1345 foreigners of 17 different nationalities, 40 among them being high-ranking commissioners. The new ICPS adopted a similar policy, hiring citizens of various countries for its managerial positions. As in the Customs, directives and other documents from the Peking (Beijing) central government were issued in Chinese, whilst English was in use for day-to-day office administration. During the first decades, French influence in the Postal Service was also strong, Monsieur H. Picard Destelan having occupied the post of Co-Director General for many years.

As in the Customs, junior ICPS foreign staff members were expected to learn Chinese as a priority and were frequently shifted about, often in far-off outposts. EC’s life was no different from that of his young colleagues. Thus, after apprenticeship in Shanghai and Soochow (Suzhou), he was sent off alone to remote destinations.

At the time, coastal cities in China were already linked by regular sea freight and passenger lines; but on inland waterways, apart from some steamers plying the Yangtse and southern rivers, travel was mainly by junk. Long-distance rail travel to the interior being non-existent, land transport took place mostly on horse-back, by cart and sedan-chair. Roads were few, ill-kept and unsafe. Banditry was rife in most areas, requiring military escort. Typhus, cholera, small-pox, bubonic plague, etc., were widely endemic, with little or no western medical assistance to be found. Official residences were provided for senior ICPS directors in some of the main posts, but junior employees had to fend for themselves. When stationed in Changsha (Hunan province), Caretti’s home was a big junk anchored on the Hsiang (Xiang) river, due to lack of accommodation and unhealthy conditions ashore. In distant, isolated stations, the local inhabitants were accustomed to regard the postmaster as a “deus ex machina”, an all-in-one magistrate-arbitrator-physician, to be referred to on all sorts of issues. On one occasion EC, although not possessing any medical training, was even called upon for help in a case of difficult childbirth!

Fortunately, like all ex-sailormen of the time, he was resourceful and accustomed to hardship. Enjoying robust health (he was never even vaccinated) and of a carefree nature, he took life as it came, with optimism. Throughout Asia, the many small expatriate communities in isolated stations defied loneliness by being very gregarious. Parties, sports, picnics, dances and formal dinners were the rule, and Caretti was fond of such activities, taking part in all of them – he always had an appreciative eye for feminine charm.

The year 1911 witnessed the final collapse of imperial rule and the birth of the Chinese Republic: a change that did not much affect the internal administration of the Postal Service. During World War I, Caretti was not drafted back into the Italian Navy and served only briefly with the Shanghai Volunteer Corps. He was granted home leave in 1919 and married Giuseppina Colombo in Milan (Italy) in 1920. The return trip to China took over 40 days in a slow old steamer and Caretti and his young bride, who had never previously left home, bravely faced heat, discomfort and the unknown. The couple settled in Peking (Beijing), where Caretti took charge of the Private Secretariat, Directorate General of Posts. By now a high-ranking Commissioner, his tasks entailed greater responsibility, albeit in better conditions. I was born in in 1921 and my sister (Maria Francesca) in 1922, both in Peking (Beijing).

The early 1920’s were years of strife and turmoil in North China, when Manchuria’s war-lord Chang Tso-lin (Zhang Zuolin) came to grips with local satraps in the First and Second Chili-Fengtien (Zhili-Fengtian) wars. Because rail communications were cut, the Caretti family, due for home leave in 1924, experienced great difficulty in reaching Taku (Tanggu) where they were to board a mail steamer for the three-day trip to Shanghai and embark there for Europe. A convoy of two open cars and a Post Office truck with all their luggage carried them along dusty roads toward the coast, but was soon brought to a standstill by crowds of unruly, threatening troops. Luckily an officer came past and Caretti appealed to him and proffered his visiting-card. In those days such cards, printed in both English and Chinese, were more respected than a passport and could work wonders. With soldiers on the cars’ running-boards, the road was cleared and the party finally reached Taku (Tanggu), but only to find that the mail steamer had already left. After a frantic search, a smaller vessel was found on which the family managed to reach Shanghai only a few hours before the sailing time of their passenger liner to Europe. My sister and I refused to leave our amah behind. So she travelled with us to Italy, where she created a sensation. Wherever she went, crowds would gather. They had never seen a Chinese woman with bound feet!

In 1925, Caretti became Director of Posts for Shantung (Shandong)

District and the family moved to Tsinanfu (Jinan), occupying a spacious official residence with a retinue of servants. A quiet period was followed in 1928 by the so-called “Shantung Incident”, when Chiang Kai-shek’s (Jiang Jieshi’s) Nationalist forces drove north to oust Shantung’s Chang Tsung-chang (Zhang Zongchang) and other war-lords. During the fighting, some Japanese nationals were killed, causing the intervention of the Japanese Army, which occupied Tsinanfu (Jinan) with much destruction and loss of life. I recall that the Jinan Central Post Office was a massive building with a large compound, behind which stood the residence of the Commissioner (where we lived) and that of the Chief Accountant & Manager of the Postal Savings Bank. That compound was filled with hundreds of captured Chinese soldiers and civilians, forced to squat in the searing summer heat with no food or water. Anyone who dared budge was beaten or even bayoneted instantly.

From 1929 to 1936 Caretti was Secretary at the Directorate of Posts’ International Department . He negotiated postal agreements with the French colonial government of Indochina and also attended the 1934 Universal Postal Congress in Cairo (Egypt), as technical adviser attached to the Chinese Delegation. During this period the family lived in Shanghai and Nanking (Nanjing).

1937 saw the outbreak of Japan’s war against China, which was to last until 1945. Upon the invasion of the northern provinces and coastal areas, Chiang Kai-shek’s (Jiang Jieshi’s) government retreated to Chunking (Chonqing), whilst the Directorate General of Posts moved to Kunming (Yunnan province). Caretti, who had just returned from a last home leave, was instructed to proceed north forthwith and take charge of the Hopeh Postal District, with headquarters at Tientsin (Tianjin). His orders were to keep the mail running at all costs.

The Head Post Office building, located in Tientsin’s First Special Area, lay in the centre of the fighting and had been occupied by the Japanese army. The postal staff suffered some casualties and withdrew to the safety of the British Concession, where they resumed work from a branch office. This situation could not last long, so Caretti decided to try and recover possession of the Head Post Office. Together with a small group comprising, the Chief Accountant Mr. J. McLorn, the Assistant Director Mr. Huang and a few volunteer employees, he approached the International Bridge over the Hai river. Usually crowded with traffic, the bridge was then deserted, with Japanese machine-gunners ready on the far side. Some nearby buildings were ablaze and corpses were lying about. The group started walking warily across, at the risk of their lives, waving Post Office flags. “Oh sir,” the Assistant Director uttered nervously, “It’s all right for you, you are a foreign national.” Caretti replied tensely: “Mr. Huang, once they’ve shot me in the ass, it really won’t matter what country I belong to!”

They safely reached the Head Post Office, which had been reduced to a shambles, started clearing the debris and commenced work. Although roughed up and beaten by soldiers, they stayed on.

Over the next few days, the situation gradually stabilised, the Japanese military recognising the need for mail services and not disposing of personnel of their own to do the job. An incredible state of affairs developed, whereby a Postal Commissioner and his staff, employed and designated by Chiang Kai-shek’s government, were tolerated and continued to operate in enemy-occupied territory. Japanese control and supervision, of course, existed and grew ever more suspicious and exacting. This de facto situation continued even when Wang Ching-wei’s (Wang Jingwei) puppet government was formed in Peking (Beijing). During all this time, occasional underground contacts were maintained between Caretti and the Directorate General of Posts in far-away Kunming. Caretti had reached retirement age in the Chinese Postal Service (at 60) in 1939, but he was asked to stay on for a further 5 years because of the emergency.

September 8, 1943, brought sudden dramatic changes. An armistice, negotiated between the Allies and Italy, came into force. The Japanese authorities thereupon declared Caretti and his wife enemy aliens, shipping them off to the big concentration camp at Weihsien (Weixian) in Shantung (Shandong) province, where they suffered strict detention and hardships for the next two years. World War II ended in 1945 and with it came the liberation of all Weihsien prisoners by United States forces. EC and his wife returned briefly to Tientsin (Tianjin), thence to Shanghai for a final report to the Director General of Posts and subsequent retirement.

Caretti had spent his best efforts over 40 years in the Postal Service. Much attached to China and its people, he was highly esteemed and liked by both his superiors as well as by all employees who had worked with him. He and his wife would have enjoyed retirement in old Peking, where they would have lived quietly in some traditional Chinese residence with pavilions and an ornamental garden. Sadly, this was no longer possible – the war had brought many changes. Both myself and my sister had departed years earlier. There was nothing left for them to do in China, so in 1947 they returned for good to their native land.

Evaristo Caretti died in Torino, Italy, on January 8, 1955.


Evaristo Caretti


Born: October 28, 1879, Pinerolo (Torino province),

Italian Navy: 1898 - Ordinary Seaman
1900 - Far East, Boxer War
1904 - Petty officer. Resigns.

Chinese Postal Service: 1904 - Application accepted
(dates of early postings 1905 - Shanghai
estimated ) 1906-08 – Soochow (Suzhou) Anhui province . 1908-09 – Chingwangtao (Qinwangdao),
Shangtung (Shandong) province,
and Taku (Tanggu)
1910-12 - Sianfu (Xian), Shaanxi province
1912-14 - Chungking (Chonqing), Szechuan
(Sichuan) province
1914-15 - Changsha , Hunan province
1915-17 - Kweiyang (Guiyang), Kweichow
(Guizhou) province
1917-18 - Shanghai
1918-19 - Foochow (Fuzhou), Fukien
(Fujan) province
1920 - Home leave. Weds Giuseppina
Colombo in Milano (Italy)
1920-24 - Peking (Beijin). Birth of son and
1924 - Home leave
1925-28 - Director, Shantung (Shandong)
Postal District. Headquarters at
Tsinanfu (Jinan)
1929 - Home leave
1930-34 - Shanghai – International Dept.
1935-36 - Nanking (Nanjing) - Ditto
1936 - Home leave
1937-43 - Director, Hopeh Postal District.
Headquarters: Tientsin (Tianjin)
1943-45 - Weihsien Concentration Camp,
Shantung (Shandong) province
1945-47 - Tientsin (Tianjin) and Shanghai.
1947 - Final departure for Italy.
Jan. 8, 1955 – Died in Torino (Italy)


The Ko Collection

Evaristo Caretti’s Chinese namewas Ko Li-te (when read in Wade Giles romanisation) or Kè Lìdé (in Hanyu pinyin). During his lifetime he used to refer to his snuff bottles simply as “my collection”. The Ko designation was chosen for the collection by the family, after his demise. In a tradition going back centuries, most foreigners residing in China acquired Chinese names. This especially applied to those persons, like Caretti, who worked for the Chinese government. Orders, instructions, diplomas, etc. were invariably addressed to foreign employees in Chinese language and script. There being no way to accurately transliterate a foreign name into Chinese characters (which are ideograms and not letters of an alphabet), such names had to be replaced by Chinese words, selecting those that, when spoken, would sound somewhat similar to the foreign name and at the same time preferably possess some suitable meaning.

Like most foreigners living in China, for whom “curio” collecting was (and still is) a widely practised pastime, Caretti was attracted by the exotic richness, variety and high quality of local art. Obviously during his early, remote postings as a young man, he had little time and money to spend, besides few occasions for meeting well-supplied antique dealers. It can be safely assumed, therefore, that he started collecting around 1914-15. In fact, a photograph of his living-room in the postal residence at Foochow (Fuzhou) in 1919 reveals the presence of bronze vessels and other objects that have been with the family ever since. Moreover on the right of the photo is a show-case containing cylindrical snuff bottles, whilst in the background a desk with another bottle can be seen.

Essentially a self-made man, Caretti lost no time in providing himself with an education. When a naval rating back in 1900 he very likely did not know a word of any language other than his native Italian. Yet barely a dozen years later he was fluent in English, French and Chinese. His office correspondence from the 1920’s (samples of which exist with the family) is no different from that of his English colleagues.

Although he started buying snuff bottles earlier, his collection really got under way when he was posted to Peking (Beijing) in 1920. The entire Ko Collection finally numbered 1507 bottles and an estimated breakdown of years, numbers acquired and places of acquisition is given below :-

Period Locality Approx. quantities

1912-1919 Early residences :
Sian (Xian), Chungking (Chonqing)
Changsha, Shanghai, Foochow (Fuzhou) 100
1920-1924 Peking (Beijing) 370

1925-1928 Tsinanfu (Jinan) 280

1930-1934 Shanghai 400

1935-1936 Nanking (Nanjin) 60

1938-1943 Tientsin (Tianjin) 280

1945-1947 Tientsin (Tianjin) 16
& Shanghai

As can be seen, the Ko Snuff Botttle Collection was gradually formed over a period of 37 years. All of its components were obtained singly or in lots of not more than 3-4 at a time, from dealers in the various cities listed above. EC would habitually sally out on week-ends, leisurely visiting a few shops during an afternoon and stopping for a chat. A call by Ko Laoyeh (as he was know to the dealers) was always appreciated and eagerly awaited. As a rule, purchases were not rapidly concluded and often took more than one visit.

Not satisfied with merely buying, he diligently studied Chinese art, religions, symbolism and folklore. Some of his favourite books are still in the family library.ii

Whether a bottle was purchased or not depended essentially on its personal appeal, for EC bought mainly to satisfy his own taste. However, benefiting from access to many sources and due to attentive observation and frequent handling, his snuff bottle knowledge continued to increase accordingly.

Like most early collectors, Caretti’s records were summary, being merely limited to a short description penned by him in a catalogue soon after each purchase. 1265 items were thus registered by him before his death, the remaining 242 being listed by me.

Snuff bottles were his primary hobby. But, being such an omnivorous collector, he also went in for other branches of Chinese art, including furniture, paintings, porcelain, ivory, carpets, large wooden sculptures, and early stone and bronze-ware. To the dismay of his wife, his possessions filled their home and overflowed into dozens of packing-cases. Part of these were lost during the Japanese occupation of Nanking (Nanjing) in 1937, whilst another lot, in storage at Torino (Italy), survived World War II bombing by removal to a remote location in the Alps.

It is obviously impossible for a non-professional collector to become an expert on all art sectors, especially when faced with the rich diversity of Chinese art. Thus, when adventuring into stones and bronzes from early dynasties, EC was often cleverly swindled. As I recall, one night at Tsinanfu (Jinan) in 1928, my father was called from his bed: “Laoyeh, Laoyeh, we have found a baobei [a treasure], come quickly!” An open Ford T, rattling and jolting south-east along a dusty track, carried him and his companions to far-off hills. Mounting donkeys, the party climbed up to a ruined temple, where labourers were unearthing something from a pit by the light of torches. With much subdued admiration the object proved to be a heavy stone stele, over a metre in height and half as much in width, the front face deeply carved with Sakyamuni Buddha standing between two Bodhisattvas, the back with 25 Buddhas aligned. A long inscription dedicated the stele to persons deceased in an accident, giving a cyclical year corresponding to 524 AD, Wei Dynasty.

Deeply impressed, my father thereupon bought the stone. To his dying day he rejected all adverse opinions and remained firmly convinced that the stele was genuine and most valuable among his possessions. After his death, I submitted photos and descriptions to foremost experts in Europe, China and Japan. They all replied expressing grave doubts. One, the famed Swedish authority Professor Osvald Sirèn, most kindly consented to examine the stele at my sister’s home in Rome, during one of his visits there. “Well, what do you think of it, Professor ?” my sister asked. Unwilling to break the bad news, the courteous old gentleman replied mildly: “Madam, it would look very fine if placed in your garden”. He probably expected shock and disappoinment, but my sister only burst out laughing. So he added, smiling : “Madam, I’m glad to see that you are a lady with much sense of humour !”


Historic Photographs-->