Many of us are addicted to books, so perhaps the premises of a leading rare book dealer, Maggs Bros in London’s Berkeley Square, is an ideal setting for ‘Opium: Santo Domingo Collection’, which brings together some 3000 objects, books, photographs and documents on the history of opium, its use and trade.
Opium had been used for medicinal
purposes in China for centuries before the practice of mixing it
with tobacco was introduced by Europeans. The cultivation of
poppies and large-scale trafficking of opium to feed a habit they
had created led to the Opium Wars and brought shame on England and
other Western powers until its suppression by the Chinese
The paradox of 'splendour and
degradation' is a phrase used more than once in an exhibition
flyer, referring both to the nature of the opium trade and the mix
of the luxury goods made for the wealthy smoker and the items of
lower-level, everyday opium use.
Given that many high-quality pieces
had been exported to Europe before the wholesale destruction of
artefacts resulting from suppression of the trade, these more
humble items can actually be rarer than those of higher
The collection concentrates
principally on the Oriental culture of opium but its medical use in
the West, where in liquid form it was widely used in medication
during the 19th century, is also featured.
Formed over ten years by someone Maggs
call "an enigmatic European who spent several decades working in
the East and buying anything opium-related that he came across on
his travels", it includes choice pieces from a similar but smaller
collection formed and exhibited in Rotterdam in 2007 by Ferry
Bertholet, whose book of that year, Opium: Art et histoire d'un
rituel perdu, is about to be published in English.
The collection, which remains on view
at Maggs until July 31, is being offered for sale en bloc and -
though Maggs are coy about the asking price - "low millions" might
get you a warm handshake.