You really have to work hard to get hooked on smoking opium. The Victorian-era form of the drug, known as chandu, is rare, and the people who know how to use it aren’t exactly forthcoming. But leave it to an obsessive antiques collector to figure out how to get to addicted to a 19th-century drug.
Recently, Steven Martin—no relation to the actor—came by the Collectors Weekly office and told me all about his harrowing journey from collecting to substance abuse. He started out collecting innocuous things; at first, it was seashells and stones, then it was currency and Asian antiqueslike textiles. Eventually the Navy veteran found his way to Bangkok, Thailand, where he worked as a journalist and travel writer, covering Southeast Asia.
There, he also discovered the beauty of antique opium pipes, bowls, and lamps, as well as opium trays and the hundreds of little implements that went with the ritual. Because opium smoking had been so thoroughly eradicated around the globe in the early 20th century, Martin realized very little had been written about these objects. After years of intense research, he produced the first opium-smoking antiques guide, The Art of Opium Antiques, in 2007.
Martin’s research wasn’t limited to mining Victorian medical books or hunting down authentic pieces on eBay. As he came across various pipes and tools, he sought out the last of the Laotian opium dens to learn how these accoutrements were used and, yes, to try them himself. Before long, he and a friend had created their own private opium den in rural Southeast Asia, but when another of Martin’s smoking buddies, a top Asian ceramics expert, died in 2008, possibly from withdrawal symptoms, Martin knew he had to quit before it was too late for him, too. This summer, Random House published his latest book, Opium Fiend: A 21st Century Slave to a 19th Century Addiction, in which Martin details how his obsessive collectors’ bug led to his opium addiction.