For James Li, buying the finest examples of this art form became a lifetime pursuit Once dismissed as minor by serious Chinese collectors, antique snuff bottles have become highly sought after in recent years, thanks to a greater understanding of this art form and spectacular price appreciation of the finest examples. Last month, the Poly Museum in Beijing showcased some 450 items from the J and J Collection, the most comprehensive exhibition of top-quality snuff bottles on the mainland by a private collector. Owned by James and Julie Li, the collection has been displayed in museums in London, New York and Taipei. James Li Gongwei is the first ethnic Chinese collector of snuff bottles of international standing. Building on some 50 pieces that he inherited from his father, a retired diplomat in the Nationalist government, Mr Li expanded his collection in the 1970s to well over 1,000 items. The decade was an unusual time of abundant supply because a large quantity of fine antique snuff bottles collected by aficionados of an earlier generation nearing retirement was put up for auction. 'There were specialised sales every month in the London auction houses,' Mr Li recalled. A Brazilian citizen, Mr Li studied at the Harvard Business School and built a successful fast-food and restaurant business in Sao Paolo. His Beijing-born late wife, Julie Li Julu, was an accomplished connoisseur whom he affectionately called 'the curator', while his pleasure was in the 'chase' to find the finest work of art. The couple co-operated with Hugh Moss, an English art leader and authority on snuff bottles, who helped them refine the collection by weeding out 80 per cent of lesser quality items and adding 200 others, which form the present collection. The J and J Collection is known for its rare early Qing enamel snuff bottles. Xia Jingqi, an expert in the Palace Museum in Beijing, noted that no more than about a dozen enamelled copper snuff bottles from the Kangxi period (1662-1722) exist today and Mr Li owns two. The collection also includes many snuff bottles made of jade, crystal precious and semi-precious stones - all work of exceptionally high craftsmanship. 'A world of miniature wonders,' Mr Xia said of the collection. Powdered tobacco, or snuff, was probably introduced to China by Portuguese traders in the 16th century. Later, Jesuit missionaries were known to have presented to the emperor an elaborate snuff box filled with snuff. The emperor found that snuff could be better preserved in the traditional Chinese medicine bottles and commissioned imperial ateliers to make special elegant containers. Soon, snuff bottles became an important status symbol, and the art of making snuff bottles reached its height in the 18th and 19th centuries. The snuff bottles have long been collected in the west. As a result, many of the finest examples are found in museums and private collections around the world. Mr Xia said studying and understanding the art of snuff bottles meant opening your eyes to the world. Chi Fen Tsang, a specialist in Chinese ceramics and art at Christie's in Hong Kong, said the popularity of collecting snuff bottles among the Chinese was remarkable in the last two years. Rare examples of outstanding quality and impeccable provenance have fetched extraordinary prices. For example, an exquisite enamelled 'European Landscape' snuff bottle from the Qianlong period (1736-1795) was sold last year for $2.2 million. It fetched $1.1 million in 1997. Mr Li lamented that the runaway prices at auctions had slowed his acquisition. 'I used to be able to buy all the items that I had in mind before going to an auction,' he said. 'Now I can only get perhaps two or three out of 10 items.' His wife died three years ago from multiple sclerosis, and the J and J Collection is an enduring memorial to her. The couple also collected western art, including 18th century Brazilian furniture, Spanish colonial painting, and art deco items. His children have not shown an interest in the art collection so far, but Mr Li believed that collecting is in their blood. 'My daughter collects plastic toys from McDonald's,' he said with a wry smile. The exhibition will continue until October 20.