Category Archive 'Opium'

26 Sep 2012

Collecting Addiction

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An opium pipe made of Canton enamel with a jade bowl.

Steven Martin, interviewed in Collectors Weekly, developed a connoisseur’s interest in collecting antique opium pipes and smoking paraphernalia, which ultimately led to his publishing two books: in 2007, The Art of Opium Antiques and in 2012: Opium Fiend: A 21st Century Slave to a 19th Century Addiction.

You have to give him credit. All collecting is addictive, but Martin managed to achieve two addictions for the price of one.

I met an expat from Austria, who was able to get opium that had been prepared specifically for smoking. This is a reason why opium smoking will never come back. First, the paraphernalia is so bulky and easy to identify that there’s just no way you can hide an opium pipe and lamp under your jacket and take it around with you. Secondly, while tons and tons of opium is harvested every year in places like Afghanistan and Burma, it’s all going straight to heroin. There’s just no demand for chandu, which is what they call opium that’s been prepared specifically for smoking.

However, this Austrian was somehow able to get enough raw opium to prepare his own chandu for smoking. And I had this bright idea—bright at the time, I thought. I said to him, “Well, you’ve got this high-quality opium for smoking, the type that isn’t even being produced anymore. You’re the only one that’s got it, and I’ve got all this great, old paraphernalia, some of it in pristine condition.” So I asked him if he’d be interested in combining the two. Over the next few years, he and I collaborated. I’d go out and visit him every month or two in the rural area where he lived, and he set aside a room in his house specifically for smoking. We decorated the room with Chinese antiques like scrolls and a traditional opium bed. …

I was going through books and getting ideas, and we tried to make it as authentic as possible. As I was still collecting and still getting different pieces of paraphernalia and pipes, I would bring them to his place and we would try them out to see how they worked. In old books, we’d read about how some of the old smokers preferred a pipe whose stem was made of sugarcane to one made of bamboo, while others preferred bamboo to a pipe made of ivory. The old books said this, but why? That’s what I wanted to know.

I was smoking so infrequently that I felt it was research. That’s how I justified it. He and I smoked every month to two months. Everything seemed fine. I started to believe that the alarmist vocabulary you find in the old books about the evils of opium was just completely overblown. I had been smoking for years and still wasn’t hooked. …

[O]pium smoking is very involved, very time-consuming. At first, that’s what I was attracted to, the whole ritual aspect of it. But then I started bringing the stuff to my apartment. That’s when things went crazy. I went from smoking opium a couple of times a week to round-the-clock. I tried getting off the stuff, but couldn’t. It was just impossible, so painful. I ended up checking into a Buddhist monastery a couple of hours north of Bangkok that specializes in treating people with addictions. …

You go through this period where it’s just unbelievably good. You just think, “I’ve discovered this great, little secret that nobody knows about.” And then at some point, it just turns the tables on you. You go from looking forward to it to absolutely needing it. It’s insidious the way it plays with your brain. It just makes life without the pipe, without the intoxication, seem really brutal and pointless. You get to the point where you can only relate to your smoking friends.


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