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 authorities.
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 status.
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.