Buyer’s Guide to Opium Antiques

For anyone interested in collecting opium antiques today, the barriers to entry into the market are relatively high. Very few genuine opium pipes remain, due to the practice of publically burning them during eradication campaigns, both in China and the US. If you’ve ever seen something listed as an “opium pipe,” chances are that it was either a fake or simply a pipe meant for smoking tobacco.

It can also be difficult to discern between a “real” opium pipe and a “fake” one because many of the fakes are also antiques. Indeed, there has been a market for souvenir opium pipes since at least the beginning of the twentieth century, when travel for leisure became an attainable luxury for the middle class.

Antique fakes.

Often, a pipe’s craftsmanship gives it away as a fake. If a pipe appears to have been made by machine, it is most likely not genuine. The following are some very common types of fakes.

Fakes for sale in a market. The “dampers” are made of solid wood and screw onto these pipes.
Curved fakes. This type of pipe was never used by Chinese opium smokers.
Bone fakes. These are meant to look like ivory.

Replica opium pipe dampers also exist, such as the following example, which shows the tendency of modern counterfeiters to appropriate motifs from genuine opium paraphernalia.

Genuine opium pipe dampers. Note the construction of the holes.
Modern replica. Note how the area around the hole has been darkened to make it look as if it has been used.

In addition to the cheap replicas, which may, in theory, be functional (but are made so poorly as to be unusable), many pipes sold as “opium pipes” were never meant for smoking opium at all.

One type of pipe which commonly falls into this category is the Chinese water pipe. These are usually made of brass, but they may also be made of porcelain or wood. These were meant for smoking tobacco, which was also very popular in China during the Qing dynasty. These are often mistaken for opium pipes because tobacco was commonly smoked alongside opium, and these pipes often appear in photographs of opium dens.

Chinese water pipes.

Another type of pipe which is often mistaken for an opium pipe is the Japanese kiseru. Like the Chinese water pipe, the kiseru was meant for smoking tobacco. Opium smoking was never widely practiced in Japan, in fact, due to its strong isolationist policies during the period when opium smoking was common in China.

Geisha smoking kiseru.

Like the previous two examples, the hookah, or nargile, is often mistaken for an opium pipe. During the nineteenth century, orientalism (which, at that time, was more fixated on the Near East) was a popular theme in art and literature, and artists and photographers often conflated various “oriental” cultures, resulting in a profusion of paintings and photographs of people smoking “opium” out of hookahs, which are actually meant for tobacco.

Photograph of a man in an “opium den.”