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NB : some of the items presented in this slideshow are not, or no more, available for sale
French collectors are quite lucky as their country is probably the best place to find an authentic opium pipe or some other opium smokers’ implement because, due to its long colonial history in Indochina, many still extant objects related to this habit settled their course in France in the end.
The reason is that opium smoking — although supporting heavy taxation — remained fully legal in French Indochina for almost a century. (The former colony of French Indochina included all parts of today’s Vietnam, together with Laos and Cambodia).
On the other hand, opium smoking has been banned in China by each and every emperor, beginning with Yongzheng in 1729 — but with no great avail. Things really changed in 1906 due to a stronger legislation and publicized bonfires (auto-da-fe) of smoking devices. In the end, the remaining smokers were eradicated on a Six-Years-Plan in 1935, finally followed by the People's Republic in 1949. So, almost nothing is left today in China to recall opium smoking. (In any case: exporting artifacts more than 100-years-old from the country is now strictly forbidden).
Besides French Indochina, it is noteworthy to say that several other countries in South-East Asia also legally tolerated the use of opium — at least for their ethnic Chinese citizens — until very recent years (Thailand: 1960, Cambodia: 1975 and Laos: as late as 2002)
On the other hand, in British Colonies, although widely used, opium was mostly ingested instead of smoked as in French Indochina and S.E. Asia...
In continental France, the habit of smoking opium followed the crowd of civil servants and military personnels returning to their motherland after their years of duty in Indochina. At first, it started in ports like Marseilles, Brest and, most of all, in Toulon where the police counted more than 200 opium dens in 1908, the year of the prohibition (actually they still counted for 163 in 1913!)…
Even after the ban of the recreative use of opium in France, quite a few amateurs remained active until the 40/50’s. (Such as Jean Cocteau, Colette, Pablo Picasso or Joseph Kessel, just to name a few).
Nevertheless, good authentic artifacts are nowadays elusive on the market and much sought after by collectors. Gross copies are plentiful in curio shops all over S. E. Asia but even if you have got enough luck to find the real thing, then there is a good chance it will be seized by a Police or Customs officer on embarking or even on arrival at your home airport, as importing opium smoking accessories is still illegal — in principle — in most occidental countries.
Now, a strong warning: never try it in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. You would probably miss your flight!
After a few weeks, most of these mock-copies of pipes and lamps will find their way to eBay where they are — often in complete bona fide — proposed as real antiques due to sellers’ general lack of knowledge. Here would applies the moto : caveat emptor, i.e: buyer know your stuff! But this requires a minimal knowledge on his part.
The best advice I ever have been given from an expert in Chinese porcelain was : « Always spend at least 10% of your collecting money allowance buying documentation! ». This works with any kind of collecting…
Speaking of that, here is a short list of good reference books in english about opium collecting:
• Martin Steven, 2007: The Art of Opium Antiques, Univ. of Washington.
(Small guide very well illustrated, perfect for the beginner). ★★★
____________ , 2012: Opium Fiend – A 21st Century Slave to a 19th Century Addiction, Villard, New-York. (An autobiographical testimony and most of all : contemporary, which is probably unique) ★★
• Flow K., 2009: The Chinese Encounter with Opium, SCM Publishing, Taipei.
(426 well-illustrated pages, about 2 kg!, this is the guide for any serious collector, but quite difficult to locate outside Taiwan) ★★★
• Armero Carlos & Rapaport Benjamin, 2005: The Arts of an Addiction, Quadrus Communication, Vienna, Virginia, USA. (219 p., with numerous illustrations and practical information : copies, fakes and reproductions, addresses, Chinese stylistic codes, etc.
Much sought after as only 500 copies were printed, ★★★
• Lee Peter, 2006: Opium Culture - The Art and Ritual of the Chinese Tradition, Park Street Press, Rochester, Vermont, USA. 232 p. Translated from Chinese.
(Interesting small book on contemporary smoking. Some good photos) ★★
And for those who, like me, are tired of watching the misrepresentations too often
offered in movies, here is a short video on how it was really done:
NB : to know more about Steven Martin (1962-2015) watch: https://www.collectorsweekly.com/articles/journey-into-the-opium-underworld/