Collecting Chinese snuff bottles likely began in the late 17th century when the first powdered tobacco afficionado in the Imperial Court collected a few small snuff containers and noticed how intriguing they looked together. Right up to the present time, new collectors are emerging who want to assemble reasonably priced collections, and shopping on line is a great way to start.
Unfortunately, there are a number of dealers who present snuff bottles made of various cheap materials as authentic antiques or as high end modern snuff bottles of fine materials. The most common and easily avoided fakes are those made of epoxy resins or plastics. They are fairly easy to spot, and are touted as being ivory, coral, amber, turquoise, and cinnabar, among other materials.
How to spot the fakes: basic pointers
Cinnabar snuff bottles are generally a dark reddish color, and if genuine are carved of layer upon layer of lacquer. No two genuine bottles are ever alike, so look for duplicated designs that are identical among the fake bottles for sale. Genuine cinnabar is almost always built over a metal, porcelain, or wooden shell, and the interior of the bottle will usually not be red, where a plastic example, if made of red plastic, will have a red interior. Ask the seller if the interior is the same color as the exterior. Finally, fake cinnabar bottles usually have a somewhat greater level of detail than a genuine carved bottle; the details are unrealistically fine.
Bottles made of real, non-dyed red coral will generally be light to deep pink to almost orangish red in color, and will have irregularities in color, pits and imperfections but are usually polished to a high shine. Coral ‘"grain" from layers of growth can be detected. The plastic bottles have very uniform, dull color and are washed with dirty colors to make them look old. The are free of real coral’s imperfections. Fake dyed red coral with have a bright to deep red color that is too uniform and strong. If you find more than one identical "coral" bottle, it’s sure to be a fake.
Real amber snuff bottles will have color variations, may be made of several pieces cobbled together, and will be hand carved and thus unique, even if the general design is repeated. Baltic amber is often orange and buttery yellow to orangish yellow, and cherry amber, which is re-heated and re-formed amber that is then carved, will be deep red. Fake cherry amber bottles can be hard to spot, but a general guideline for all the amber fakes is that the color is so uniform and the bottle so transparent that it can’t be real. Only the finest antiques or the finest amber would have that kind of clarity. Again, look for repeated bottle designs that look identical - this means they are mass produced.
Genuine ivory will have fine lines in a crisscrossing grain pattern, not always but often visible in a well taken picture. Ivory generally does not have pits, but bone does, so be cautious of a snuff bottle presented as ivory if the surface looks pitted. Plastic fakes will lack the fine "schreger lines" or criss-crossing grain lines seen in genuine ivory. The lines can also appear parallel but are fine and close together. A few more cautions about ivory. There is a type of genuine ivory called "mammoth ivory" which is fossilized prehistoric ivory from the wooly mammoth. This can be light in color and resemble modern elephant ivory, so a modern bottle could be carved of this material and be presented as antique. Finally, when dealing with elephant ivory, research the current laws regarding this material. Some countries prohibit import, export, or sale of elephant ivory. As a general rule, purchase of genuinely antique elephant ivory is legal in the United States.
Genuine turquoise is generally formed in a matrix and there are light and dark colors mixed and veins or marbling; again these will be hand carved and no two bottles would be exactly the same, so duplicates sold by multiple vendors are obvious fakes. The fakes tend to be impossibly uniform in color and sometimes can even show lines from the mold they were poured in to!
Destroy a snuff bottles to prove it’s fake?
Lots of people talk about the "hot pin test"; plastic will generally melt under a heated pin, but ivory, coral, and harder natural materials won’t. Beware of this test, as you will likely damage the bottle, genuine or not. And some genuine materials like amber would be damaged regardless by a heated pin. Yes, many plastics will melt under a heated pin, but it’s an awfully harsh way to determine what is real or fake. Almost anyone will be able to spot the fakes with a little experience and patience. Look at a friend’s collection, get some books, ask questions of dealers, and find examples in antique shows and shops. You’ll soon learn to appreciate the real and the genuine for the craftsmanship and beauty of the materials.
As a final note, the vast majority of fakes are being sold by Chinese dealers, as they are manufactured in great numbers in China. The auction price for such a snuff bottle is often 99 cents, with very expensive shipping costs and a high profit built in! Take a look among the thousands of snuff bottles for sale on line and you will find myriad numbers of obvious fakes. Remember, there’s nothing wrong with an honest dealer presenting a snuff bottle as "composition", "resin", or "modern materials". It is dishonest and against most on line auction company's policies to misrepresent the material or the age of the snuff bottle - and it is also in some cases against the law.