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How Collecting Opium Antiques Turned Me Into an Opium Addict
December 19, 2012 7:20 PM   Subscribe

In this interview with Collectors Weekly, opium antiques expert Steven Martin talks about How Collecting Opium Antiques Turned Me Into an Opium Addict.
posted by naturalog (41 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite

 
In 2001, I was working as a fixer and translator for a good friend of mine, Karl Taro Greenfeld, a journalist for the Asian edition of Time.

Wow. Quite the connection. But I guess if it involves drugs and journalism in Thailand...
posted by KokuRyu at 7:24 PM on December 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


Momentarily, I thought that said Steve Martin. Carry on.
posted by Atrahasis at 7:24 PM on December 19, 2012 [7 favorites]


Excellent article, great find, thanks for posting.
posted by KokuRyu at 7:27 PM on December 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


I read his book. It's very interesting. And this is an oversimplification, but I also want to point out that smoking a grip of opium cannot have helped with that serious yen for hop.
posted by Divine_Wino at 7:31 PM on December 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


His book about this is really good. Even though he came off as kind of weird and insufferable, I really admired his willingness to put it all out there. And he is eloquent when talking about the beauty of the opium paraphernalia, holy shit.

Read his book. Everyone who liked that moonshine book that came out a few years back? You will like this even more.
posted by Sidhedevil at 7:33 PM on December 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


On opium, touching things that are of a strange texture is actually enjoyable, so they designed paraphernalia with this in mind. When it comes to the decorative aspects, the ornate and intricate little designs would hold your attention so you could just get lost in them.

Great article. Thanks.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 7:43 PM on December 19, 2012


I read the book. The author is slightly off-putting in his style (to me), but he does a great job of describing the ritualistic aspects of his addiction, which really put it ahead of other "I was an addict"-style memoirs. Highly (no pun intended) recommended.
posted by xingcat at 7:46 PM on December 19, 2012


I'm very glad his collection is going to a museum, and one with links to digs with opium connections. Fantastic pieces, and hopefully his works will lay the groundwork for future studies. (I feel like I should check on Collector's Weekly more often-- I feel like the surprisingly interesting interview with Dita von Teese on taxidermy was in there too!)
posted by jetlagaddict at 7:48 PM on December 19, 2012


See also this classic Mefi post Confessions of an eBay Opium Addict that taught me how to purchase low-grade, untreated dried poppies on the popular auction site for super-cheap in order to make tea to tide me over between heroin binges. Unfortunately, it also kept my tolerance at a nice high level so my habit remained intact.
posted by item at 7:49 PM on December 19, 2012 [9 favorites]


Great article, thanks.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 7:50 PM on December 19, 2012


I thought this had been posted before. Great essay. I was struck by the severity of opium addiction (i.e. death from withdrawal).
posted by mecran01 at 8:26 PM on December 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


Absolutely fascinating - so many interesting threads bound up together. I was struck by the way he mentioned that most artifacts of the trade were cast off during reform eras. It made me reflect on whether institutions are saving enough artifacts of, say, the crack epidemic or the pre-medical marijuana era to be able to chronicle the material culture of illicit drugs in the 20th/21st centuries accurately. And many more thoughts. Thanks for posting.
posted by Miko at 8:30 PM on December 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


Fascinating, thank you.
posted by jokeefe at 8:46 PM on December 19, 2012


I am still haunted by this article from the last time it showed up here (in a comment). It's fascinating and disturbing.
posted by girl scientist at 9:21 PM on December 19, 2012


This actually connects with something I was thinking about the other day, which is that you really never hear basically anything about what taking opiates is like in a concrete first-hand way, and I think that's sort of odd.

Like, if you've paid any attention to pop culture, you know about specific subjective weed-related phenomena. (Munchies! Dry mouth! Dumb jokes! Circular speculative conversation!) And okay that's an oversimplification and not everyone experiences that stuff all the time, but, you know, actually, for most people most of the time it's really in the right ballpark. Same with cocaine. Same with MDMA. Same with all the various and sundry hallucinogens — for all that LSD (for instance) is notoriously hard-to-explain, people have actually done a pretty solid job of putting the experience into words, including concrete details (walls breathing, time dilation, odd experiences with colors and patterns) that, yeah, sure enough, that shit really does happen.

Whereas with opium, or heroin, or whatever other opiates, all you ever seem to hear about is how much it sucks to run out, and how obnoxious the physical side effects are. That and vague rhapsodizing about how pleasant it is to take — but always in a sort of emphatically bland, blank, detail-free way that really doesn't give you any help in imagining what it's actually like. It's like if you asked someone how it felt to smoke weed, and they said "I like it. But it involves setting things on fire." D'oh.

So today I learned that opium makes funny textures more interesting. Okay. Cool. That's something concrete. I will add this to my mental model of What Opium Is About.
posted by and so but then, we at 9:32 PM on December 19, 2012 [6 favorites]


See this recent FPP of Lapham's Quarterly for some good descriptions of taking opium.
posted by gingerbeer at 9:44 PM on December 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


Nice article, and Collector's Weekly is a total rabbit hole, so thanks alot, there goes my evening.

I think this is the Dita Von Teese/taxidermy interview?
posted by thylacinthine at 9:55 PM on December 19, 2012


I was struck by the severity of opium addiction (i.e. death from withdrawal).

I'm pretty sure that's bollocks. In the absence of other conditions, nobody dies from opioid withdrawal. It's deeply unpleasant, but it isn't life threatening.

Somebody withdrawing from alcohol or benzos will be get to do so in a medically supervised facility because of the risks from fitting. But an opioid detox is much less expensive because the minimal risk means there isn't any need for 24/7 medical supervision in the absence of complicating factors.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 10:56 PM on December 19, 2012


From the article: With modern drugs, you take a single hit and you’re hooked for life. You’ll think of nothing else.

So, one has to question the validity of what the article says, because this is pure bullshit of the worst, war-on-drugs sort.
posted by Goofyy at 11:27 PM on December 19, 2012 [4 favorites]


So, one has to question the validity of what the article says, because this is pure bullshit of the worst, war-on-drugs sort.

It's bullshit, but it strikes me more as bullshit the dude just sort of believes because it's in the air than as an agenda he's pushing or something.
posted by brennen at 11:36 PM on December 19, 2012 [3 favorites]


Thanks for the article.

I wish opium dens would make a comeback. They were the exact opposite of the things people do now to get high in public. You go to the nightclub or the rave and you do lots of X and speed and coke and jump around and it's all crazy wild with lasers and techno and shit. But in an opium den you would lie on the floor. You would be quiet. It was introspective. A good antidote for modern life.
posted by twoleftfeet at 12:49 AM on December 20, 2012 [3 favorites]


"Oh! just, subtle, and mighty opium! that to the hearts of poor and rich alike, for the wounds that will never heal, and for 'the pangs that tempt the spirit to rebel,' bringest an assuaging balm; eloquent opium! that with thy potent rhetoric stealest away the purposes of wrath; and to the guilty man, for one night givest back the hopes of his youth, and hands washed pure of blood...."
Confessions of an English Opium-Eater - Thomas de Quincy
posted by adamvasco at 3:37 AM on December 20, 2012


Mudpuppies post should also be referenced especially the Opium Museum
posted by adamvasco at 3:43 AM on December 20, 2012


Very interesting, and I learned that my wife and I are apparently unwitting opium paraphenalia collectors too! While living in china we accumulated several of those lamps that we assumed were just small, ornate, antique, silver desk lamps with some style of weird Chinese glass dome! We just kept finding them at country junk shops and thought they were cool!
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 5:42 AM on December 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


So very interesting, especially since many collectors describe collecting itself like a drug.
posted by Theta States at 6:28 AM on December 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


Theta States - yah, and that's something that Martin talks about at length in his book. He runs into a lot of people (including, at times, himself), who seem easily as desperate to keep collecting as the stereotypical drug addict would be to procure his next fix.

I enjoyed this book, but agree with previous comments that Martin comes off as something of a pompous, self-absorbed manchild. That said, he's also a self-aware one - it's pretty clear that Martin knows he's sort of dodgy, even when not on opium. And he's a very, very knowledgable pompous, self-absorbed manchild, with genuine writing chops. Recommended.
posted by Mr. Excellent at 7:42 AM on December 20, 2012


"For lack of a better niche, the publishers have been marketing it as an addiction memoir. Yes, there are parts of it that are similar to addiction memoirs, but it’s really much more about collecting."

A distinction without a difference?

I'm looking forward to reading this book. And thanks for the introduction to the site!
posted by oneironaut at 8:00 AM on December 20, 2012


With modern drugs, you take a single hit and you’re hooked for life. You’ll think of nothing else. Opium’s the exact opposite of that. It takes years and years to get addicted.

I don't think it takes years and years to get addicted to ANY opiate.
posted by orme at 8:09 AM on December 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


While part of me feels badly that he became addicted and had such pain trying to quit, the historian in me couldn't help but notice that only someone who smoked opium would be able to realize why the artifacts were designed as they were (the lamps as visual foci, the texture of the pipes, etc).
posted by jb at 8:30 AM on December 20, 2012 [3 favorites]


But in an opium den you would lie on the floor. You would be quiet. It was introspective. A good antidote for modern life.

Yeah, but then you have to give a monk seventy bucks, which is BULLSHIT. Why can't people just turn off their stereos and listen to the background sound of traffic for a while?
posted by FatherDagon at 10:08 AM on December 20, 2012


While part of me feels badly that he became addicted and had such pain trying to quit, the historian in me couldn't help but notice that only someone who smoked opium would be able to realize why the artifacts were designed as they were (the lamps as visual foci, the texture of the pipes, etc).

Yeah, there's something endlessly fascinating about the little lost determinisms of the technological past. All the stuff that's completely hidden or arbitrary until you actually use a thing. I wonder if it's even possible to know how much of our material culture is predicated on fossilized responses to pressures that no longer exist.
posted by brennen at 10:49 AM on December 20, 2012 [3 favorites]


I'm pretty sure that's bollocks.

He seems willing to think he's wrong on the death by withdrawal thing himself in the book's epilogue.
posted by IndigoJones at 11:55 AM on December 20, 2012


Oh, and there's a lot more on his friend Roxanna Brown
posted by IndigoJones at 12:05 PM on December 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


the historian in me couldn't help but notice that only someone who smoked opium would be able to realize why the artifacts were designed as they were (the lamps as visual foci, the texture of the pipes, etc).

If I remember correctly, the lack of experience with opium has inhibited archaeological investigation of opiates because no one knew to associate certain signs with certain symbols (e.g. cross-hatching. Additional interesting article on ancient opiates here, though it's a little more scattered. This article "Opium Trade in the Bronze Age Levant" is great, but paywalled unless you have access to Antiquity.) Not that archaeologists are free from experimenting with drugs, but experimental archaeological studies aren't usually published on them....
posted by jetlagaddict at 1:46 PM on December 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


Not that archaeologists are free from experimenting with drugs

Based on the handful I've met, this is perhaps an understatement.
posted by brennen at 2:53 PM on December 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


Yeah, there's something endlessly fascinating about the little lost determinisms of the technological past.

"Lost determinisms" is a great way to put it.

Or sometimes I like to think of this stuff as lost material for observational comedy. "Didja ever notice how...?" "You know that feeling you get when you...?" "So I'm sure we've all done that thing where... ...am I right, fellas?"

Because one of the things that makes that stuff funny (well, when it succeeds at being funny at all) is the shock of recognition at sharing what feels like a basically private and specifically personal experience. There's this specific thing you do or think or feel that you assume just has to be a unique personal quirk — and maybe you're embarrassed about it and really hoping that nobody else knows, or maybe you just feel like it's too trivial to mention, but either way you never talk about it — and then it turns out, no, it's reliably triggered by a certain situation, and so loads of people do/think/feel the same thing.

(And they probably know you're doing it too! Oh man so embarrassing! But then the only way they could know about it is if they do it, so that means.... And there you are all bound together by ties of common experience on the one hand and shared public humiliation on the other hand and you basically just have to laugh because what else can you do?)

I like to imagine that some of the things archaeologists wonder about — "Why the hell did they pile up their oyster shell middens in this one particular way?" or whatever — would have been just as funny at the time. "So fellas, you know how it is. You finish your oysters and you're on your way out to the shell midden, and... [several minutes later] ...ha ha! Whew. Yeah, we've all been there, am I right?"
posted by and so but then, we at 3:01 PM on December 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


I wish I could think of a good example, but since a whole bunch of my career has been in history museums, I've witnesed/experienced a bunch of incidences of that actual "oooOOHH so that's why [tool] is designed this way!" It's very much embedded in the whole experimental archaeology philosophy, which seeks to reconstruct knowledge and identify new questions by mimicking, to the degree possible, what is known about a process. I have certainly had any number of moments where the reason for a given design becomes clear: so THAT's why the helmsman stands aside, not behind, a historic ship's wheel; so THAT's why your knife lanyard needs to be three or four feet long instead of one or two; etc.

I once took a boatbuilding class that included a lengthy lecture on tools - finding and choosing. The takeaway was that people who work with wood for fine techniques really seek out and value older tools - their handle designs, strength, quality, ergonomics, etc are all better than the equivalent mass-manufactured tool of today. They just don't sell enough hand tools, and hand tools today just don't get enough consistent heavy use, to bother making them as well.
posted by Miko at 8:22 PM on December 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


so THAT's why your knife lanyard needs to be three or four feet long instead of one or two;

Could you elaborate on this? It is relevant to my interests.

The takeaway was that people who work with wood for fine techniques really seek out and value older tools - their handle designs, strength, quality, ergonomics, etc are all better than the equivalent mass-manufactured tool of today

There's such a subtlety and natural form to older tools. I remember my dad buying this sort of awkward, bulbous pole with a kind of hinged hook on one end at some farm sale, and I was like "what the hell could this possibly be useful for" and it turned out to be a log roller. And then it turned out that you could singlehandedly move half a ton of tree with the thing without breaking a sweat, and that its use became as obvious and expressive as that of a chisel or a hammer as soon as you had the idea.

A lot of old tools have this kind of uncanny fitness to their tasks, a suitability to purpose and movement that doesn't really match the sort of crude, iconographic shapes we ascribe to abstract ideas about "tools" these days. A knife or a plane or a brace-and-bit will look awkward and clumsy to untutored eyes and suddenly spring to agile life in the hands.
posted by brennen at 9:20 PM on December 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


Oh, the knife lanyard: On historic-rig ships you need to carry a knife on your person to deal with various events that can happen aloft. It can't get in your way, so people usually carry it in a sheath, and usually position the sheath on your belt at the center of your back. It's in the center of your back so that you can reach it with either hand, which is important because the way you are hanging on to the rigging may prevent you from using your dominant hand in all situations. You need to be able to reach it from either side. And you need to be able to use your knife to reach - so the lanyard has to be long enough to extend your arm completely, knife in hand, without being restrained by the tether. When the knife is sheathed it looks like you have a needlessly long lanyard - if you're ever balancing on the end of a yard trying to reach out into the air to cut a trapped piece of sail loose from a binding piece of rope rigging, it's just long enough.

And you need the lanyard because anything you carry aloft has to be tethered to you. If you didn't and you dropped it, it'd either go into the sea or fall onto the deck where it could damage something or injure somebody.
posted by Miko at 9:41 AM on December 21, 2012 [3 favorites]


If I remember correctly, the lack of experience with opium has inhibited archaeological investigation of opiates because no one knew to associate certain signs with certain symbols...

I studied anthropology and archeology in my undergrad days and would just like to provide a primary source of evidence that a shortage of experience with opiates is not a limiting factor in this field.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 11:36 AM on December 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


I studied anthropology and archeology in my undergrad days and would just like to provide a primary source of evidence that a shortage of experience with opiates is not a limiting factor in this field.

Hey, that was the explanation they gave us in Arch 101 as to most of the Near Eastern/Medit opium papers came in the 1960's...well, along with scientific tests to prove the identity of the chemical deposition on the interiors. I think the professor was eliding over some of their own, say, personal experience!
posted by jetlagaddict at 11:59 AM on December 21, 2012


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