Snuff bottles may be small, but they exert considerable pull on collectors. While 17th-century Europeans stored their powdered tobacoo in boxes, the humidity in much of China (and the lack of pockets in Chinese garments) necessitated a handheld, airtight repository — and thus the snuff bottle was born. The tiny vessels — the focus of Small Delights: Chinese Snuff Bottles, a yearlong show now up at the Metropolitan Museum of Art — were first made in China in the 17th-century and became widely used in the 18th, with some of the most sought-after examples coming from the imperial workshops of the Qianlong emperor, a noted patron of the arts.Collectors are drawn to the bottles, which measure between one-and-a-half and 3 inches tall, for their “tremendous range of materials and subjects,” says Marsha Vargas Handley, owner of Xanadu Gallery in San Francisco, which deals in the elegant objects. “You can have, in miniature form, an example of a top 18th-century porcelain or a wonderful overlaid-glass carved bottle.”WHO’S BUYINGAlthough collecting snuff bottles became a trend in America and Europe in the 20th-century, the demographic has started to shift toward mainland Chinese collectors, as is the case with much of Chinese art. But Western aficionados retain an edge. “Americans and Europeans are still playing a very active role in the market, even as they’re being elbowed out in other aspects of Chinese art,” says Bruce MacLaren, a specialist in Chinese art at Bonhams New York. In recent years, high-profile single-owner collections from Mary and George Bloch, Linda Riddell Hoffman, and Paul Braga have hit the block.WHERE TO FIND THEMThe influx of Chinese buyers has buoyed the snuff bottle market, with both galleries and auction houses seeing increased demand. All the major auction houses as well as more than a dozen snuff bottle dealers in North America (vetted by the International Chinese Snuff Bottle Society) now sell the items. “As with any antique collectible there are a lot of things out there, but you have to be careful because there are many modern copies,” Handley warns. Moreover, while lesser-quality bottles may be readily available, prime pieces are becoming harder to find. “There are plenty of mediocre bottles out there,” says MacLaren. “The really good ones are rarities, but as long as you’re willing to pay, you can find them.”MYRIAD MEDIAThere is an incredibly diverse range of materials out of which snuff bottles are made: organic materials like wood, bamboo, amber, even nutshells; hard stones like amethyst, lapis, aquamarine, and quartz; and different styles of glass, including overlaid, clear, monochrome, and lacquered. The way a bottle feels can be as important as how it looks. Currently, the most desirable are fashioned from jade (especially the white variety), other hard stones, and enameled porcelain. “Jade is a very important stone to the Chinese, and the really good-quality jade always fetches a premium,” says Marley Rabstenek, a consulting appraiser for Doyle New York. She watched a Chinese white jade snuff bottle with a coral stopper soar past its $15,000-to-$20,000 estimate to bring $80,500 at Doyle in March 2012. Glass, which was relatively new to China at the time the bottles were being made, is also coveted—especially in those examples with painted insides, which are usually signed by their creators. The technique requires artisans to use a tiny hooked brush and work backward: First applying the most-visible finishing touches, then the middle ground, and lastly the background. A glass bottle with a painted interior by Ding Erzhong from 1906 leaped past its presale estimate of $10,000 to $15,000 to achieve $80,500 at a September 2013 sale at Bonhams New York.PLENTY OF PRICE POINTSBottles made in imperial studios tend to fetch the highest prices, no matter the material. The Qianlong period (1736–95) is currently the most sought after; according to MacLaren, “anything the emperor looked at or breathed on” does well at auction. The most expensive snuff bottle ever sold, which went for $HK25,300,000 ($3.2 million) at Bonhams Hong Kong in November 2011, is a Qianlong-era creation. The record-breaking enameled glass bottle features a rare painting of a European woman. While Qianlong bottles are popular now, the scarcer 17th-century bottles, bearing reign marks from the Kangxi and Yongzheng periods, will often bring more money; for instance, an enamel-on-copper Kangxi bottle fetched $HK3,620,000 ($466,000) at Bonhams Hong Kong in May 2012.“Seven-figure snuff bottles are pretty rare,” says MacLaren. “By and large, a high-end snuff bottle will be in the range of $20,000 to $50,000.” A midrange example can be had for $2,000 to $10,000. But prices for snuff bottles are extremely variable, and the quality of the material, the carving or decoration, the condition, and the age all have an impact on the cost. “There are lots of different varieties,” says MacLaren. “That’s something that makes them collectible. You can have so many different types.”THE ESSENTIALS· The most coveted inside painting artists are Ma Shaoxuan (1867–1939), Ding Erzhong (1865–1935), and Ye Zhongsan (1875–1945).· Although snuff bottles are primarily Chinese objects, they were also made in Mongolia, Tibet, and Japan. Often they were manufactured in Japan for the Chinese market.· In the mid 20th-century, snuff bottle aficionados gathered encyclopedic collections containing one bottle in every material. Today most aim to collect the best examples of any type.For examples of collectible Chinese Snuff Bottles, click through the slide show here.