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Opium: The Santo Domingo Collection

Opium Pots

The Santo Domingo Opium Collection is a museum quality collection of objects, books, photographs, and documents illustrating the history of opium, its commerce, culture and consumption.

Click here for a short video discussing and illustrating the collection

It consists of over 3,000 items, gathered in the course of decades of dedicated collecting. It includes important historical documentation of the 19th Century opium trade and its suppression in the 20th Century, and a huge collection of objects, including material of the highest quality and the most demotic.

Many stories can be told from the collection.

Opium was one of the most powerful socio-historical agents of the 19th Century. The Opium Wars showed the European imperial powers at their most cynical, as they cultivated the opium poppy and fostered demand for the finished product, creating a cycle of trade involving tea, opium and silver.

Luxury goods for the wealthy opium smoker were produced by the finest workshops of China, with materials and iconography chosen to accentuate the smoker's reverie. The huge culture of proletarian consumption, where the benefits of opium were more related to an ability to work without rest, is also illuminated by the collection, which includes many items relating to the quotidian use by working people. During the suppression of opium, there was a wholesale destruction of artefacts by the authorities. Before this, many high quality objects had been exported to Europe, and paradoxically the humble items, destroyed by the authorities and abandoned by history, are rarer in the market than the high status goods.

The collection concentrates principally on the oriental culture of opium, but there are many reflections of the image of opium in the west – exotic and dangerous, associated with decadence and avant-garde art. The more common use of opium in the west, where it served through the 19th Century as an almost universal medication normally taken in liquid form, is also illustrated in the collection.

The destructive power of opium addiction led to its almost complete suppression throughout the East, and historical study of its culture and artefacts is under-developed. In recent years there has been a blossoming of interest in the phenomenon of opium consumption in the East in the 19th and early 20th Century, and this collection offers, in its scale and quality, a unique opportunity for serious research into both the production of the artefacts, and the culture of its consumption. 

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