T.O. of Ojai has a Chinese opium bed featuring giltwood and polychrome panels, with carved dragons, phoenixes and flowers, as well as a carved support, all surmounted by a canopy of rosewood fretwork. The bed is a prime example of a piece of material culture, and if it could talk, it would tell quite a story.
This late-19th century model was not just for sleeping. In fact, the word "bed" in Chinese means a piece of furniture in which to settle down. A raised platform on which to settle was actually invented by the Chinese during the Warring States Period, 475-221 BCD. Before the invention of a raised platform, Chinese sleepers and lovers lounged on a "kang," a platform in the ground made of clay bricks that were heated from beneath by a fire. The bricks were festooned with woven mats. The larger Chinese beds with raised railings, sides and sometimes little roofs developed from smaller Lohan beds.
Since raised beds were invented by the Chinese 2,500 years ago, Asian artisans have been crafting sumptuous carved and gilded bedchambers like T.O.'s, often enclosed by wooded panels and draperies for sleeping and other forms of entertainment that involve lying down. During the 1800s, the Chinese enclosed bedchamber came to be notoriously known as the opium bed. The draped and paneled sides shut out intruders and drafts (which an opium smoker would want, as the heat for the drug came from an oil lamp). Many were built large enough to enclose a sitting alcove and wardrobe space for up to six people.
In "How Collecting Opium Antiques Turned Me into an Opium Addict," Collectors Weekly's Lisa Hix interviews a collector of such material, Steven Martin, author of 2007's "The Art of Opium Antiques." Mr. Martin was drawn to such collectibles because, although opium use was widespread in the 1800s, these so-called decadent objects were subsequently stamped out by law enforcement's eradication campaigns. They were burned in cities all over the world. Mr. Martin says that original opium collectibles are scarce, beautiful and mysterious.
He draws a parallel between obsessive collecting and other addictive behaviors. As a scholar, he researched the period and practice. As a collector, he found opium pipes, gorgeous little oil lamps and other tool paraphernalia from France, Canada and the U.S., gathered, perhaps, by former missionaries or tourists in Asia in the late 19th century.
Such beds were often the centerpiece of the late 19th century opium den, the glamorous backdrop to a scene of ritual in which intoxication was achieved in peace amid beautiful surroundings with exquisite paraphernalia. There was a terrible price to pay. Lying in such a bed was necessary because that was the position you had to assume to hold the pipe over the low, squat vaporizing lamp. If you had money, the ritual was facilitated by your own attendants; if not, you found an opium den. The practice was prevalent in China in the early 19th century, especially after the British discovered that they could trade with the Chinese in opium instead of silver. Too late, the Chinese government realized that the ubiquitous and highly addictive drug was rampant; the Chinese waged war in the devastating Opium Wars of 1839-1860.
Opium beds were imported to American Chinatowns, where, in the 1860s, opium dens began to be frequented by San Franciscans, Chicagoans, New Yorkers and folks in New Orleans looking for an exotic thrill. Mr. Martin says by the 1880s, most cities on the East Coast and all on the West Coast had a den, which perhaps featured such a bed.
The U.S. government banned opium with the passing of the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act of 1914, using as an example the opium dens of the newly annexed Philippines, gathering up piles of pipes and lamps and lighting a mighty bonfire.
T.O.'s bed was made for privacy and could be shuttered on all three sides as well as closed at the top to create quiet, stillness and dimness. Chinese oil lamps, expensive, beautiful and collectible today, might have been the only light source seen once the bed was draped.
I consulted Clars Auction Gallery in Oakland; the bed is estimated to be worth $600 to $900 and up.
Certified appraiser for estates, inheritances and trusts.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
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