Our conservation curiosities series will give you a quick insight into some of the most unusual and unique pieces you’ll come across in auction rooms and antique shops around the world.

This week we are looking at snuff boxes and the miniature artworks that adorn them.

Snuff box

What is a snuff box?

Snuff was a smokeless form of tobacco developed in the 17th century and popular throughout the 18th century and 19th century. Today it is rarely used and so the boxes that used to house it are collected as attractive antiques. Like tea, the finest form of snuff was reserved for members of the aristocracy – Catherine de’ Medici famously used it to treat her headaches. Due to their use in court, luxurious snuff boxes and accessories were a lucrative new business for goldsmiths and artists. 

Snuff boxAbove: a variety of 18th century suff boxes featuring portrait miniatures, painted panels and inlay decoration 

As they became ever more fashionable, having a beautiful and richly embellished box to take out in social situations became a way to thoroughly establish your wealth and status. Snuff boxes were frequently given as royal gifts to members of the court and visiting ambassadors, sometimes instead of a traditional payment for a service due to their artistic and monetary value. 

Snuffbox miniature portraitAbove: a detail of a snuff box featuring the portrait miniature of a member of the French royal family 

These highly decorative boxes could contain a wide variety of materials, including silver, gold, ivory, tortoiseshell and precious stones. But the most eye-catching part is often a small artwork, depicting a classical scene, allegorical figures or a portrait miniature. 

Snuffbox detailAbove: a detail of a snuffbox by Jean Georges with miniatures by Mademoiselle Duplessis, 1761-62

Paintings on a stuff box are often composed in enamels. Some artworks are held inside the lid – perhaps a portrait of a lover concealed for privacy. In other instances, the painted decoration may fully surround the box in several delicate panels.

Snuff boxAbove: a detail from a snuff box decorated with six scenes of country pastimes by Louis Nicolas van Blarenberghe and Henri Joseph van Blarenberghe, 1774-75

Today snuff boxes are highly prized by collectors. In 2011, a collection sold for £1,700,000 at Bonhams. Individual snuff boxes can sell from anywhere between £1000 to £25,000 at auction, with some reaching much higher than their estimate. Snuff boxes have an increase in value if they have connections to royalty or possess very fine artwork and materials to attract buyers who have an eye for detail. 

Royal snuffboxAbove: a snuffbox featuring a portrait of Louis XVI that was presented to Colonel John Laurens in 1780

What issues do stuff box artworks face?

Like portrait miniatures, snuff box artworks may face deterioration from accidents and their environment. Artworks under glass may have this protective surface dislodged, scratched or cracked over time, requiring a bespoke replacement. Our team often supplies new glass for miniatures, this can also help those residing on or within a snuff box to prevent further damage.

Snuff box paintings

Enamel paintings or those completed upon ivory without a glass barrier may have faced abrasion through an accident or lack of care in the past. They may have also been worn down due to their use if they were originally kept for their intended purpose. Whilst completely lost decoration and artwork may not be possible to reproduce without harming the historic integrity of the piece, our conservators can assess the stability and conduct treatments to prevent further deterioration.

SnuffboxAbove: a detail from a snuff box inlaid with lapis lazuli, ivory and mother of pearl, 1765-70

We not not recommend cleaning a snuff box and it’s decoration at home. Ivory especially faces unique challenges and can crack or discolour in certain conditions, you can learn more about ivory care here. Our team is happy to offer advice suited to each snuffbox, as each item may face very different challenges due to their age and unique mixture of materials.

Snuffbox painting

How can we help?

If you have a snuff box with a miniature painting that is in need of care, please speak to our team for further information and an obligation free quote today.

To make contact please email us via [email protected] or call 0207 112 7576

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